The operator of the gas well that exploded near Quinton, killing five workers, disregarded “proven and successful” drilling programs in favor of a cheaper and quicker plan that set up the well for a potential blowout, the latest court filings in two lawsuits allege.
The operator is accused of ignoring six expert consultant engineers’ recommendations on the weight of drilling fluid to be used to drill the well. A lighter mixture was chosen at greater risk to save money and market the project to investors through a drone “hype” video capturing flares of escaping gas, the lawsuits allege.
Drilling fluid, called “mud” in industry jargon, is the primary defense against well blowouts. Lighter muds allow for faster drilling and less expensive operations. But the mud must be dense enough to keep underground fluids from entering the well bore — which happened in January in the well in Pittsburg County.
“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 lawsuits claim.
Red Mountain and Crescent Consulting, an engineering firm which was contracted to oversee the drilling operation, denied the allegations in court filings last week. Patterson-UTI, contracted to perform the drilling, also denied wrongdoing in court filings.
The accusations were filed earlier this month in two amended wrongful death lawsuits after depositions were taken of a Red Mountain executive, Crescent drilling engineer and several Patterson-UTI rig workers, according to the plaintiffs’ law firm.
In its own court filing, the company that supplied the mud for the well site stipulated that Red Mountain and Crescent chose to deviate from its recommendations “while drilling critical sections of the well.”
National Oilwell Varco contends that it had no authority over Red Mountain to compel it to re-adopt or return to NOV’s recommended procedures.
“It was Red Mountain’s ultimate right to either accept and follow that recommendation or to reject and abandon it,” National Oilwell Varco said.
In a statement, Red Mountain President Tony Say responded that the lawsuit demonstrates a lack of knowledge in understanding well-site operations.
Say particularly took issue with the contention that his company “dictated mud weights” and the characterization of the purpose for “flaring.” He added that the drilling program had a range of options that on-site personnel could use, with the blowout a result of negligence by personnel from other companies responsible for maintaining control of the well.
“The amended lawsuit filed earlier this month against our company contains many false allegations and unproven assertions,” Say said. “We categorically deny any claim our company put profits over people.”
The court battle is playing out as federal investigators continue to probe the explosive blaze that killed Roger Cunningham, 55, of Seminole; Josh Ray, 35, of Fort Worth, Texas; Cody Risk, 26, of Wellington, Colorado; Matt Smith, 29, of McAlester; and Parker Waldridge, 60, of Crescent on the morning of Jan. 22.
Each family or estate has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. A sixth lawsuit has been filed by Kevin Carrillo, who survived the blowout but suffered serious injuries — some of which he says are permanent.
Risk’s estate and Ray’s family assert in their lawsuits that the lighter mud mixture allowed flare-ups to occur intentionally.
A drone allegedly then was used to capture video, which was mixed with music to “hype” the project to attract investors for other pending Red Mountain drilling projects.
“Videos were taken of 40’ to 50’ flares capturing what they viewed as a ‘good gas show’ versus a giant red flag waiving from an uncontrolled well,” the lawsuits contend.
The drilling crew was directed to “trip out” of the well — remove the drill pipe and bottom-hole assembly — on Jan. 21. In the late hours and then early hours of the next day, the drilling crew repeatedly requested that a Crescent contractor increase the mud weight, the lawsuits say.
“Even as the well was showing signs of a blow out, these continued calls to ‘mud-up’ … were ignored,” the lawsuit contends.
In a factual update in August, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced that it had found “strong indications” that a potentially dangerous influx of gas existed for at least a half hour before the explosive blowout.
A method used to detect conditions preceding a blowout showed a level 10 to 20 times greater than general industry standards that would trigger an alarm and halt operations, according to the Chemical Safety Board’s lead investigator.
Data also indicated that gas could have entered hours before the blowout as the overnight crew removed drill pipe to change the drill bit, according to the federal investigation.
The morning crew’s last shot at capping the burgeoning catastrophe was to engage the blowout preventers as an uncontrolled gas-and-mud mix escaped the well. That failed when the blind rams — blocks of steel that shut-in a well — refused to close as a fire ignited, according to investigators.