The fracking boom that is remaking the face of North Dakota has attracted thousands of workers to the state as people who cannot find jobs elsewhere pursue the lucrative wages in the new northern oil path. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state gained more than 11,000 residents between 2010 and 2011, putting North Dakota’s population at an all-time high of 684,000 people. While some people celebrate the boom, with the increased population has come a problem that no one likes: an increase in crime.
Most of the roughnecks and roustabouts who have to the prairies of North Dakota are, no doubt, honest fellows who are just looking to make an honest dollar. But there are also some tougher characters in the lot. Crime statistics from Williston, ND—a town of about 16,000 that is at the center of the fracking boom—illustrate the problem. Between 2008 and 2009, the town experienced a sharp increase in reported crimes. The Williston Police Department says that calls to 911 skyrocketed in 2011. Also last year, a pharmacy in town was robbed of $16,000 in narcotics. And in early 2012 people in the region where horrified by two oilworkers’ kidnapping and murder of a woman in nearby Montana, about 45 miles from Williston.
Between 2010 and 2011, there was a 16.1 percent increase in violent crime and a 10.3 percent increase in property crime statewide. The increase in crime has been driven, in part, by higher crime rates in the state’s western counties where the shale oil fracking is occurring. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem cautions that the crime increase in western North Dakota is proportionate with the region’s population growth. Statistics show that counties in the oil patch account for about a quarter of the state’s population and about a quarter of the crimes, Stenehjem says.
But that is little consolation to longtime residents of western North Dakota.
Residents say they are particularly concerned about the “mancamps,” ad-hoc communities with temporary housing stock (usually trailer homes) that offers a place for workers to stay. A survey of residents in the town of Mandaree, a hamlet on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, found that 90 percent of people there are concerned about their family’s safety due to the proximity of the mancamps.
Women, especially, are concerned for their safety. Laura Jorgenson from the town of White Earth told me: “I don’t go to Walmart any more. There are groups of men who hang out in the parking lot and they look you up and down. It makes me uncomfortable.” She added: “There are rapes going on all over that are not being reported.”
Ranchers in the region have become worried about trespassing and theft. One rancher, who declined to have his name published, said, “My neighbor had a pickup on his land. He asked them what they were doing, but he kept his distance. They might get aggressive and pull a gun on you.”
Drug and alcohol use makes matters worse. “Methamphetamines and marijuana are the drugs of choice,” farmer Don Nelson said. “The meth keeps them going, while the marijuana and beer bring them down.”
Cedar Gillette, a domestic violence counselor in New Town on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, says she is working non-stop. “We’re in crisis mode,” she said. “There is a large increase in domestic violence.” Gillette partly blames the harsh living conditions in the mancamps, where recreational vehicles and trailers are crammed close together. But Gillette thinks that the increase in domestic violence mostly stems from a larger issue: the privileged status of the oil and gas industry. “Oil company workers are not accountable to the community,” argues Gillette. “They can treat people however they want because they think they are untouchable.” Women are made vulnerable in these circumstances. She said that sometimes it takes police hours to reach victims because they don’t know where the man camps are.
Despite the heightened worries about safety, North Dakota locals feel some compassion for the strangers even as they fear them. Mark Trechock served as executive director of the Dakota Resource Council before retiring in early 2012. A resident of the town of Dickinson since 1993, Trechock says the weakness of the economy brought many to the oil fields. They are attracted by relatively high wages, but on arrival find that the oil fields aren’t exactly paradise. “So you come up here, you get a pretty good salary, but it’s paycheck to paycheck with few or no benefits,” he said. “Many of the people who are here, they’re cooking or whatever. They still have a home someplace else. They’re just surviving. They’re not getting ahead. It costs too much money —$800 to $1,000 a month just to park your RV, $6 a gallon for milk.”
Trechock worried that the substandard housing is putting some workers in real danger. “Winter’s cold in North Dakota. Most campers aren’t well insulated. Beginning in 2009, workers started stacking hay bales around their trailers for insulation at the same time they put electrical heaters underneath to keep the pipes from freezing. They use propane for heat and cooking. The whole place, some 200 campers, could have burned up in an hour. The Dickinson Fire Department has tried to stop the hay and electrical heaters here, but there are scores of camps scattered all over the region. Who knows how many get inspected?”
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