North Dakota Oil Boom: The Dark Side

PHOTO: An oil pump jack stands outside of Watford City, North Dakota in this Oct. 14, 2011 file photo.
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The good things the North Dakota oil boom has brought to little towns like Watford City, N.D. (population 1,744), you probably can guess. The bad? Maybe not.

Before the boom, the number of registered sex offenders in Watford City stood at zero. Today? Twenty-eight.

Williston ("Kuwait on the Prairie"), Watford City and their neighboring towns in North Dakota sit atop the biggest lake of oil to be discovered in North America since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1968. That lake holds, by some estimates, 25,000 square miles oil. Eleven billion barrels of it can be tapped by using existing technology. Every day, about 100 new wells are drilled by some 150 oil companies that have moved here since 2006.

With the boom have come jobs and opportunity and money. Property values have skyrocketed.

Unemployment in North Dakota is 3.7 percent -- lowest in the nation. Williston's rate is 9/10 of one percent.

In many ways, life is better than before the boom: The public playground in Williston has a new jungle gym designed to look like an oil derrick and a teeter totter that looks like an oil pump. All in all, the playground has been beneficiary of $460,000 in improvements, all them of paid for by the local oil companies.

Thanks to the influx of workers, local merchants now sell more beer and bread and haircuts.

"We've got more retailers and more restaurants," says Williston Mayor Ward Koeser.

So, what's the bad news?

Rising rents mean families who have lived in these towns for decades now cannot afford to stay in the houses they called home. People who've never had to wait in line at the post office or the movies now have to wait. Noise is up, traffic up, congestion up. Crime, too.

"We never had any sex offenders before," complains Watford City mayor Brent Sanford. "That is, unless somebody local had had a rape or some kind of deal."

While the 2010 census says Watford City's population is 1,744, locals believe the number now may be as high as 7,000. An army of itinerant labor, almost all of it male, has flooded the region, attracted by the promise of good wages and lots of work. So-called "man-camps" -- prefab compounds thrown up overnight to feed and house these male workers -- dot the landscape.

"They're all over the place," complains Sanford.

Mayor Koeser says Williston has 5,000 to 6,000 guys living in man-camps a few miles outside of town.

"When they come in to go to the bar, they don't always behave themselves," he says.

The proliferation of man-camps has become such an issue that Watford City last year imposed a moratorium on building any more of them.

"I moved here to get away from crowding, from commuter traffic," says Sanford. "It was peaceful. You'd drive the highway and see maybe one other car every 10 miles. Now you can't even count them. We've got 10,000 trucks a day, bumper-to-bumper. It's very nerve-wracking, very dangerous. Fatal accidents are up."

Dan Kalil, commissioner for the county where Williston sits, testified recently before the North Dakota legislature about the oil boom's impact.

"Our quality of life is gone -- absolutely gone," he said. "My community is gone, and I'm heartbroken. I never wanted to live anyplace but Williston, N.D., and now I don't know what I'm going to do."

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