Lawsuit: Deadly drilling rig explosion was result of company trying to save money

QUINTON, Okla. - Attorneys for the family of a man killed in a drilling rig explosion say the operator of the oil well was trying to save money by pursuing a risky drilling method, a lawsuit filed in district court claims.

In January, five men were killed after a drilling rig exploded outside of Quinton.

Authorities say there were 22 workers on the well site, which was being drilled by Houston-based Patterson-UTI Energy, at the time of the explosion.

Officials identified the victims as 35-year-old Josh Ray, 29-year-old Matthew Smith, 26-year-old Cody Risk, 60-year-old Parker Waldridge and 55-year-old Roger Cunningham.

(Top left to right) Josh Ray, Matthew Smith, Cody Risk, (Bottom left to right) Parker Waldridge, and Roger Cunningham.

"This was the deadliest U.S. drilling accident since the 2010 deep-water horizon rig explosion which killed 11 workers," said U.S. Chemical Safety Board  interim executive Dr. Kristin Kulinowski.

Officials with the Pittsburg County Sheriff’s Office say that the remains of all five workers were found in the last place the men were seen working, which is where the fire initially started.

The Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office indicated that all five died of burns and smoke inhalation.

An initial report released by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission claims that there was an uncontrolled release of gas that caught fire. It also states that an employee attempted to shut down the well, but could not.

Oil rig explosion in Quinton. (Photo Courtesy: Zayne Erickson)

Now, a lawsuit filed in Pittsburg County District Court claims that the explosion was a direct result of the companies trying to save money and impress investors.

"This suit arises out of yet another tragic preventable incident caused by irresponsible companies working in the oilfield who place money and profit over safety and human life," the lawsuit claims.

Court documents claim that Red Mountain, the owner and operator of the well, decided to use a lighter drilling mud than what other operators in the area were using in an effort to save money.

"Incredibly, however, Red Mountain chose to ignore the proven and successful drilling programs of those same 'off-set wells' when they prepared the drilling program for the Pryor Well in question. Rather than preparing a drilling program with the mud weight proven to be safe and effective in dozens and dozens of other Woodford Wells, Red Mountain chose to use a significantly lighter mud weight that was cheaper and ineffective to control the well. Unconscionably, for the five men who lost their lives, Red Mountain cared more about its investors' money than the safety of the men who were drilling this well," the suit claims.

The lawsuit also claims that the man serving as the drilling engineer was not a licensed engineer in Oklahoma at the time of the explosion, and opted to use the lighter mud weight at the site than heavier ones used by nearby wells.

Attorneys say that the company even consulted with several companies that were experts in mud, and they all recommended mud weights "well-above" the mud weight that was chosen.

"Ignoring the mud weights used in dozens and dozens of off-set wells and ignoring the expert mud engineering advice provided by more than a half-a-dozen mud companies, Red Mountain, Crescent and Mr. Acosta chose to drill this well 'underbalanced.' They chose to use a mud that was not heavy enough to create a barrier to prevent the influx of pressure into the wellbore. In other words, in ignoring the expert advice and proven safe and effective mud weight used time and time again, they chose a mud weight that would actually allow the well to blow-out," the lawsuit states.

Attorneys say Red Mountain was simply trying to save money and intrigue investors.

Just hours before the explosion, the lawsuit alleges that the Patterson crew on the rig asked for officials to increase the mud weight, but those requests were ignored.

"Because the mud weight used was not heavy enough to control the well, the well began to flow in an uncontrolled manner, and the natural gas was released from the well, it mixed with oxygen in the atmosphere which then ignited causing a well fire," the suit states.

The lawsuit is seeking damages for the pain and suffering one of the victims, 26-year-old Cody Risk, and his family went through.

"As a result of Defendants' gross neglect and malice, Plaintiffs seek exemplary damages against these Defendants in an amount equal to 25% of Defendants', Red Mountain, Crescent Consulting, and National Oilwell Varco, and Patterson's net worth," the lawsuit claims.

News 4 has reached out to Red Mountain and Patterson- UTI for a comment on the pending litigation.

Five days later, Red Mountain sent KFOR a statement, saying the claims in the lawsuit are false.

“The amended lawsuit filed earlier this month against our company contains many false allegations and unproven assertions. We will respond specifically and in detail at the proper time in a legal venue,” Red Mountain President Tony Say said. “For now, we categorically deny any claim our company put profits over people. Safe, responsible operations are the top priority at every Red Mountain well, and our deepest sympathies go out to those affected by this tragedy.”

“This lawsuit demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of wellsite operations, especially its contention Red Mountain dictated mud weights and the purpose of flaring,” he said. “As is standard in the industry, the drilling program was designed with a range of options which on-site personnel could use to perform their duties,” he said. “This incident was the result of negligence by personnel from other companies who were responsible for maintaining control of the well in all circumstances.”

“We will continue to vigorously fight any false allegations which seek to inappropriately place blame on Red Mountain Energy,” he said. “We are confident the legal process will exonerate our company.”

In August, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Patterson-UTI Drilling, Crescent Consulting LLC and Skyline Directional Drilling LLC for exposing workers to explosion hazards.

OSHA cited Patterson-UTI and Crescent Consulting for failing to maintain proper controls while drilling a well, failing to inspect slow descent devices and implement emergency response plans.

All three companies were cited for failing to ensure that heat lamps in use were approved for hazardous locations.

They face fines of more than $118,000.

“These employers failed to properly control hazards involved in oil and gas extraction activities, and the result was tragic,” said OSHA Oklahoma City Area Office Director David Bates. “Employers are required to monitor their operations to ensure workplace health and safety procedures are adequate and effective.”