Seven months ago, Bob Pilger said he was a healthy 54-year-old man toughened by working in the construction industry for 34 years.

Today, the widowed father of two can hardly breathe. He totes around an oxygen tank and labors to get his words out. He is out of work and can’t pay his bills. His medical debt is mounting and he is starting to panic.

“My lungs burn and I’m weak,” Pilger said. “I’m short of breath because I can’t get the oxygen level up in my blood and I have no energy.”

Pilger said the dramatic decline in his health is work related and claims he became ill in May from exposure to silica dust while working for Liberty Pressure Pumping in Bluff Dale. Liberty is a company that provides fracturing stimulation services principally in the Barnett Shale play of North Texas.

Pilger relocated to Texas from New Jersey in January after he was hired as the main superintendent of the Bluff Dale project to construct silica sand silos. The sand is used to fill cracks in the ground caused by oilrigs, a process called fracturing.

When Pilger first became ill, he sought treatment at Granbury Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with acute bronchitis due to silica exposure. Since then, three doctors at three separate hospitals have diagnosed Pilger with the same condition.

Liberty, however, has turned its back on Pilger, he said. The insurance company is refusing to pay his medical bills or provide him with workman’s compensation benefits.

Pilger said he was sent home at 4 p.m. June 20 — five hours after OSHA showed up at the work site to launch their investigation. Jimmy Fisher, Pilger’s supervisor, told him he was too sick to keep working. Out of work and desperate, Pilger said he can no longer afford to buy the oxygen he needs to breathe.

“These oil companies think they’re God,” he said. “Liberty feels like they can hide accidents by not reporting them. Because they are a multi-million dollar oil service company they feel that they can do what they want, when they want and how they want.”

As of Friday, Pilger had not retained an attorney, although he has met with one to discuss his case.

Beyond the work site

Kenny Stafford and Jennifer Miller have been Bluff Dale residents for more than 20 years. The couple knew Bob before he got sick and said the change in his health and appearance was drastic shortly after going to work for Liberty.

The couple lives approximately 150 feet from where the sand makes its way down Liberty’s conveyor belt and into the silos. It’s also the site where the sand’s dust has been spewing into the air for the past two months.

Though both say they have yet to experience any problems breathing, they worry that the long-term damage to the environment and to Bluff Dale residents will take years before it is recognized. Kenny and Jennifer say they are frustrated that company officials have not come to them to discuss the hazards of the silica dust.

“We would just like for the company to sit down and talk to us about this,” Kenny said. “I have no problem with the guys who work for Liberty - they’re just trying to make a living and have been good neighbors - but we need the company to talk to us.”

Bluff Dale is considered to be an unincorporated village with no city council and no mayor.

“People here don’t ask a lot of questions which is why companies like this choose these kinds of small towns to come to,” Jennifer said. “They don’t worry about people in this town because they don’t live here. If Bob hadn’t gotten sick we wouldn’t have known that anything was wrong. We just thought it was regular sand.”

But silica sand is nothing like the sand found on the beach.

According to a pamphlet published by the U.S. Department of labor, silica dust is commonly found in industries such as construction, mining, stone cutting, glass manufacturing and shipyards.

Silica is the main component in rocks like granite and sandstone. Its dust is created when sandstone or rocks are cut, drilled or worked on in a way that creates fine particles of silica in the air.

When Liberty offered a safety course to its employees, there was no mention of the hazards of silica dust, Pilger said.

“There was just a mention of silicosis, but in reference to silica sand, there are many other diseases and illnesses that individuals can attain by airborne silica dust,” he said.

Filing the complaint

Pilger filed a complaint with OSHA that included 11 items that Michael Talmont, OSHA’s assistant area director of Fort Worth, said he is currently investigating.

Talmont said cases of silicosis, which is exposure to crystalline silica (quartz) that gets deep inside the lung tissue is common in people with long-term exposure. Pilger, however, has not been diagnosed with silicosis, but with bronchitis caused by exposure to silica dust. Talmont said people subjected to high-levels of silica dust over a short period of time can develop acute symptoms like bronchitis.

Pilger said Liberty’s employees often work long hours and are exposed to silica dust 17 hours days, six days a week.

Talmont said he will begin the process of monitoring exposure of silica dust to Liberty’s employees sometime this week.

Meanwhile, Bonita Croft, Liberty’s general counsel and corporate secretary, said the company is looking into Pilger’s allegations.

“All we can say at this time is that we are very concerned when we hear that there may be a safety issue with an employee,” Croft said. “We are looking into this.”

Sara Vanden Berge covers courts, law enforcement, and business and political issues for the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at sara.vandenberge@empiretribune.com. Her work number is 968-2379, ext. 240.