Kyle Randall was just minutes from home on a hot July night when a semi truck hauling 39,000 pounds of oilfield wastewater blew through a stop sign and plowed into the side of his Ford Taurus.
The force of the collision on a desolate Canadian County road drove Randall’s car into a nearby field, striking a water pipe before coming to rest.The car crumpled, pinning 25-year-old Randall under the dashboard. The bumper of the red semi stopped inches from his forehead.
By the time firefighters freed his broken body from the wreckage more than an hour later, Randall was clinging to life with a severe head injury. Randall — working to become certified as a diesel mechanic — sustained permanent injuries that left him unable to work and dependent on caregivers for the rest of his life.
The driver of the semi, James E. Griffin Jr., 33, walked away uninjured, later pleading no contest to running a stop sign and driving an overweight truck.
The wreck outside El Reno on July 2, 2013, was just a few miles from an earlier crash involving a truck hauling oilfield waste for the same company, Rick’s Tank Truck Service LLC. That crash, in which the truck driver also failed to stop at a stop sign, killed 55-year-old Twila Zoe Marshall on Jan. 5, 2013.
After the fatal accident, employees at Rick’s Tank Truck Service had what the driver called a “brake changing party,” replacing the “spongie” truck brakes with new ones, records show.
But the switch did not fool the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which determined the truck’s brakes were faulty at the time of the wreck.
The agency cited the company with the same violation after the collision that injured Randall. The truck in that wreck exceeded the state’s weight limit by 5,000 pounds.
Oklahoma’s earthquake swarms have focused public attention on an unwelcome byproduct of the recent energy boom: millions of barrels of naturally occurring, toxic wastewater welling up with the oil and gas.
While the earthquakes linked to wastewater injection wells have rattled residents statewide, a lesser known threat has killed and injured dozens of people: trucks hauling oilfield waste and equipment, often on back roads that rarely see a state trooper.
An investigation by The Frontier and NewsOn6 has found at least 36 people died in wrecks with trucks licensed to haul oilfield waste and equipment between 2007 and 2013. The investigation matched a federal database of fatal vehicle crashes to a state database of about 350 companies licensed to haul “deleterious substances,” government lingo for wastewater produced during drilling.
Records show a troubling pattern: Crashes involving commercial vehicles increased at a time when the state failed to meet its inspection goals. There were 3,988 crashes involving commercial vehicles statewide in 2010, a figure that increased to 4,438 by 2012. Fatal accidents and fatalities from these crashes also increased.
(The figures are for all commercial vehicles, since the state doesn’t separate its overall crash data by type of commercial vehicle in published reports.)
In fiscal year 2012, the latest for which figures were available, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol conducted 65 compliance reviews for commercial vehicles, far short of its goal of 110 reviews. The OHP blamed a lack of manpower and lowered its goal for trucking company compliance inspections in 2013.
OHP Capt. David Moffitt said the agency pays attention to crash data and responds to trends.
“If we start seeing high accident corridors, we try and figure out why,” Moffitt said. “We go to those areas that are troublesome.”
However Kyle Randall’s father, Richard Randall, said his son’s accident changed little in terms of oversight of trucks driving through the area.
“You can sit at one of the corners out here and see the 18-wheelers fly by and they could care less,” Richard Randall said.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission licenses companies to haul wastewater but has no authority under state law to inspect the trucks it licenses. Trucks hauling wastewater operate on rural roads and are known to avoid weigh stations, located on the state’s borders.
One official remarked that if you see a wastewater hauler at a weigh station, the driver is probably lost.
Records show the vast majority of companies licensed to haul oil and gas wastewater are not involved in fatal accidents. During the six years studied by The Frontier and NewsOn6, about seven percent of companies with such licenses owned or operated trucks involved in fatal accidents.
Jim Newport, executive director of the Oklahoma Trucking Association, said in an email to The Frontier that the industry group “puts safety first through improved training, advanced safety technology, and participation in safety initiatives at local, state and national levels.”
Newport said overall, the industry’s fatality crash rate has dropped by 40 percent over the past decade and driver behavior, rather than mechanical defects, is the cause of nearly 90 percent of all crashes.
“Safety rules and regulations facing trucking industry are stronger than ever
before. … They are all subject to same safety rules as other trucks,” Newport said.
However, records indicate safety lapses involving Rick’s Tank Truck Service are not isolated among trucking companies that haul wastewater:
- Nine of 24 companies had trucks involved in two fatal accidents during the time period studied.
- The data did not include injury accidents. However, a federal database of trucking industry safety records shows that companies with fatal accidents since 2007 reported wrecks that injured 54 people during the past two years.
- Seven of those companies had “conditional” safety ratings from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, indicating regulators found a pattern of safety violations.
- Of about 350 active carriers licensed to haul wastewater in Oklahoma, 48 received citations for having overweight trucks in the past year, or 13 percent.
- One company had a conditional safety rating at the time it was involved in the deadliest accident during the period studied. The company, Mike Krebbs Construction Inc., owned a truck involved in a crash that killed five people riding in a horse-drawn buggy near Quinton in 2011.
With gaps in regulation, some companies have little fear regulators will hold them accountable for unsafe trucks that endanger motorists.
In recordings obtained by The Frontier and NewsOn6, dispatchers and truck drivers employed by Rick’s Tank Truck Service laughed about the apparent poor condition of some trucks.
“Houston, we have a motherfucking problem,” one trucker told a dispatcher. He explains that he “ran into a little shifting problem” with one of the company’s trucks on a hill near Watonga.
“It got stuck in an in-between gear. … I was trying to get it in gear, get it out of the way, and then, I want to say the transmission dropped out of the bottom of the fucking truck,” the incredulous driver said.
Laughing, the dispatcher replied: “Get out and look.”
The tapes are among exhibits in a lawsuit on behalf of Randall against True Energy Services LLC, of Ada. Rick’s, which no longer holds an active license to haul wastewater, is a subsidiary of True Energy, according to the company’s website.
Attorneys for the company and corporate executives, including President Kevin Cantrell, did not return calls seeking comment. Cantrell served as a board member of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association in 2011, records show.
Rick’s had a contract to haul wastewater for Devon Energy Corporation and one of the company’s trucks had just left a Devon site when the accident that injured Kyle Randall occurred. Devon, also named in the pending negligence lawsuit, declined through a spokesman to comment.
In court filings, True Energy Services has denied claims it was operating negligently and said the driver was at fault.
The suit seeks damages to compensate Randall for ongoing medical care he will need as a result of the accident.
Richard Randall now helps his adult son with daily tasks he could do as a child.
“It wasn’t easy. All I could think about is, is he going to make it? Because nobody knew at that time. And he was in a coma for 12 days, I believe, and then he woke up. And he remembered who I was, so it was a miracle.”
With the help of his father, Kyle learned to walk again but can’t climb the stairs in his small house or run with his nephews and nieces at the park. He knows he won’t achieve his dream of becoming a diesel mechanic because he can’t lift much with his arm, which has a rod and more than a dozen screws.
“My life has meaning. I do know that. What’s that meaning for? I have no idea. Maybe it’s to help stop some drivers from doing what they’re doing,” he said.
Altogether, Rick’s Tank Truck Services’ fleet of 31 trucks was involved in five accidents in 2013, a record that prompted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to downgrade the company’s safety rating from satisfactory to “conditional.”
Records show the federal agency, which works with the state to enforce trucking laws, cited Rick’s for a pattern of violations including truck brakes that were out of adjustment and failure to test drivers for drugs and alcohol following accidents.
The agency noted that the accident in which Randall was injured and two others involved running through stop signs or rollovers. Its report in October 2013 recounts a conversation with Ricks’ vice president of operations, Steve Dean.
“Much discussion occurred between myself and Mr. Dean concerning the causes of these crashes,” states the federal agency’s report on its review of Ricks’ safety record. “He agreed that the speed of his company’s trucks were too great for road conditions and his drivers were at fault.”
In December 2013, officials with Rick’s appealed to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to restore the company’s satisfactory safety rating. The company pointed to new safety measures including an incentive program allowing drivers to earn gift cards up to $100 for clean inspections.
Early last year, the federal agency denied the company’s request for an upgrade in its conditional safety rating. Federal officials said Rick’s failed to provide enough evidence that its trucks met the federal safety standards or had corrected issues raised in the past, including an “unsatisfactory recordable accident rate.”
While the company still lists three Oklahoma truck facilities on its website, federal records state that its Department of Transportation number is no longer valid.
Bob Blakemore, an attorney representing Kyle Randall, said the crash and others like it should prompt discussion about lax oversight of trucks hauling wastewater.
“The crash that permanently disabled Kyle was eminently preventable,” Blakemore said in an email to The Frontier. “The statistics uncovered by The Frontier suggest an industry-wide problem. It is our hope that with Kyle’s lawsuit, and the increased media scrutiny the salt water hauling industry will take a long look in the mirror and begin implementing meaningful remedial measures.
“With any luck, this will be Kyle Randall’s lasting legacy. Kyle does not want one other motorist to endure the nightmare he was been put through.”
Look up a trucking company’s safety record on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website.
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. To become a Friend of The Frontier, click here.