Oil pumper passes trade to next generation
At first, the work of a Shawmar Oil & Gas Company pumper seems like a videotape in an infinite loop, routine on top of routine.
Dusty Miller, 30, of Council Grove, has been patrolling the rocky, rolling pastures in Chase County for five years. He’s worked for Shawmar for 10 years. He said he has checked the same engines, the same rods, and the same gates 50,000 times.
Whether it’s in Chase County or Marion County, the job is similar for an oil pumper employee of the Marion-based business.
The job can be lonely. Miller can go long hours without human contact. His solace is the radio in his truck. He has a rotation of all kinds of music, country recently, and talk radio to keep his interest.
“The worst piece of equipment to have go out is the radio,” Miller said.
With his plethora of experience, it takes Miller mere minutes to perform his duties at any one of the oil and gas pumps he checks daily — more than 100 in a week’s time.
He takes a few quick glances at the machinery, diagnoses any differences or problems in seconds. Then he checks the engine of the pump, in constant motion with a renewing supply of natural gas. Sometimes he puts some water into the engine, if it needs it. Then, he feels the rod churning up and down at the other end of the pump. With this touch, Miller can sense whether the machine is pumping oil or natural gas from the ground.
“I’ve learned I check things I don’t even know I check,” Miller said.
Miller and Kenny Wirtz used to be the only Shawmar pump men who worked the pastures in Chase County. Recently, spurred by an incident where Wirtz had to take off work, Shawmar has employed more pump men to tackle the fields.
However, Miller and Wirtz are still the only two employees who know where all the pumps are located.
Miller has been trying to help new employee John Richard of Burdick. He has been teaching the new pump man which tools to bring to the jump to anticipate the possible problems he might encounter. He has been slowly teaching Richard the field’s number system and where all the pumps are located. He has tried to guide Richard as much as possible to avoid the dangerous moving machinery at the job.
“As you can see, there’s a lot of equipment that you can be hurt by,” Miller said.
Even with this instruction, Miller understands that there is a sink-or-swim nature to the job. What Miller likes about the job does make it dangerous; there is no supervisor looking over a pumper’s shoulder. But, the pumper is the one responsible for a well that is not producing oil.
When Miller was hired Nov. 27, 2001, he trained for two days before he was given 40 pumps to check.
“The trade gets passed down per generation,” Miller said. “The old guys teach the new guys.”
Miller stopped July 8 along his route to help Richard, who was making repairs on an engine. He gave some quick advice. Miller generally thought the inexperienced pump man was a quick study. Before leaving, Miller directed Richard to another part of the field.
Even though he takes pride in being one of the guys other employees could turn to with questions, Miller is wary of taking too much credit for his knowledge. It is a trap of complacency for a job that is consistently dangerous.
“I don’t think there’s an expert in the oil field,” Miller said. “You find something you didn’t know or can’t explain every day.”
Mechanical problems are only a portion of the unique conundrums the oil-field worker faces. Animals, domesticated or wild, can disturb the normal routine.
“In the summer it’s cattle,” Miller said. “In the winter it’s snow.”
Cattle in the field, which Shawmar rents for its wells, often find their way into the gates within wells. Even with pump men being diligent to close gates around the oil and gas wells, cows will chew through the rubber latches for each gate.
While not a danger to the machinery, cattle like to rub against the machine and have been caught and killed in the rolling machine. Shawmar is liable to pay the rancher for the dead cow.
“It’s happened before, and it will happen again,” Miller said.
Wild animals add to the intrigue of the Flint Hills pasture. Miller has marveled at multiple bald eagles. He has been intrigued by dung beetles, garden spiders, and jackrabbits.
Miller also encountered a bull snake that was living in the gated area next to an oil tank.
Weather is also an adversary of the pump man. The winter offers its set of challenges. Oil-field workers must be diligent to turn off pumps when temperatures reach 15 degrees or colder. At 15, salt water will freeze, making it impossible to pump oil or gas and wasting the gas going to the stalled engine.
Snow makes the gravel roads Shawmar maintains throughout the pasture nearly impassible. Drifts can blow from either side of the road and trap a pump man in two feet of snow.
Worse than winter is spring. When the weather is 60 degrees during the day and 30 at night, the pumps shut down with the colder temperature, forcing pump men to start every pump in the morning.
“When you start the engines it takes strength; there’s a knack to it,” Miller said. “You start all of them and your back hurts.”
With the physical and mental challenges of the job, there is also the unseen challenge of personal tragedy.
“Everybody has some tragedy that has to happen sooner or later,” Miller said.
Miller said this as a generality about every job that he has worked including back when he moved boxes of soda for Coca-Cola in college. As an oil-field worker, there are only so many people to cover for one another when personal problems arise.
Miller understood what Wirtz was going through last year because he had dealt with his own tragedy.
Miller’s house burnt to the ground in 2008. His wife Shelley and three children — Jaedyn, Corbyn, and Shanyn — were not at the residence. By the time he arrived from Lincolnville, the house was nothing but a door; all he was left with was a small box of possessions.
He had to miss much of the next year to try to build a new house and take care of any other problems at home. Shawmar executive Beau Cloutier gave Miller all the time he needed. Cloutier even visited the Miller residence to offer assistance.
“They did things I didn’t expect,” Miller said of Cloutier and other Shawmar employees. “I couldn’t ask for them to be more understanding. Maybe that’s why I feel like I have to work as hard as I do.”