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Dark side of an oil boom

Ann Carrns Mar 21, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Word has it the economy is out of the critical care unit and in recovery. Hiring is up a little; housing prices are rising here and there. All over the country, we’re hearing stories of comebacks — big and small — as we stagger out of the Great Recession.

In a special collaboration with the New York Times, we’re bringing you the Comeback Chronicles. In tomorrow’s Times and on this weekend’s Marketplace Money, we’re telling stories of people who made huge adjustments in their lives to ride out the downturn.

Today, we travel to Williston, N.D. The town’s made a comeback thanks to the billions of barrels of oil that lie underground. But the benefits of a boom have a dark side. New York Times reporter Ann Carrns has the story.

Ann Carrns: Williston mayor Ward Koeser is dealing with the kind of growth most mayors would envy:

Ward Koeser: We’ve had people from all 50 states and they can find, man, in a day or two you can find a great job, you can probably pick your choice of jobs.

Unemployment is at just 1 percent. Local businesses are thriving. But the growth has come at a high price. The population has nearly doubled to more than 20,000 in the past several years. People are so desperate for housing they’re sleeping in their cars.

Thousands more live in temporary housing called “man camps” on the outskirts of town. There’s three times the traffic, lines for everything and the place is covered in a film of gritty sand, thrown up by the 9,000 semi trucks that barrel through Williston every day.

Koeser: The stress here today is difficult on everybody, there’s no, you can’t minimize that, it’s just we’re dealing with sewage, we’re dealing with roads, and water, streets, and people and housing, and there are just all kinds of issues.

One of the issues is fear — fear of getting hit by one of those semis; fear your landlord is going to triple your rent; or worse: in early January, just on the other side of the Montana border, a woman named Sherry Arnold was abducted and presumed murdered. The two men charged with her kidnapping were on their way up from Colorado to work in the oil field.

Kristin Mortenson: Well it changed how many of us behave here.

Kristin Mortenson moved here from Idaho in October, with her husband and 2-year-old son.

Mortenson: It certainly hits right at the target of the resentment of folks who’ve been in this area, a good, wholesome, safe area, as to what these new people bring which is drugs, bad behavior and really, really scary things that can happen.

Rumors of assaults and rapes abound in Williston. The county sheriff’s office says more people have applied for concealed weapons’ permits so far this month than did in all of 2010. Kristin Mortenson:

Mortenson: Many women have been buying pepper spray, stun guns and all kinds of stuff like that.  I haven’t gone that far yet, but I don’t leave the house at night.

A group of longtime Williston locals get together after church for Sunday bunch. Dan Baker’s nearly 80 years old. He’s seen the town through two previous oil booms and busts. He says some of the new residents may look pretty rough, but he’s seen the type before.

Dan Baker: There’s no reason to be afraid of these people. They’re good people. They are coming to town to find a job to help support their family.

His friend Chuck Wilder takes a positive view of the newcomers too. He wants them to stick around, bring their families here and help Williston thrive long-term.

Chuck Wilder: The town historically has always been either really booming or it’s kind of flat lined. I’d like to see a normal growth.

But Williston’s growing public relations problem is getting in the way — and giving Mayor Ward Koeser a headache.

Koeser: I always tell people, and it’s not like I’m encouraging them stay away from the bars, but I always tell people, if you stay away from the bar you’re probably going to be fine.

“Probably” may not be good enough for Patrick Schneider. He lives in one of the man camps just outside town. He’s considering bringing his wife and 3-year-old daughter out from northern Minnesota, but he’s wary.

Patrick Schneider: You know, I’d hate to move them out here and have something happen you know, that’d just be horrible.

Koeser: We’re a safe community. I still believe that. And we’re going to work hard to make sure that stays the case.

Time may be on Koeser and Williston’s side. Some experts estimate the oil companies will be pumping for decades, giving the town plenty of time to catch up with its own furious growth.

In Williston, N.D., I’m Ann Carrns for Marketplace.

Vigeland: The full Comeback Chronicles will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times and this weekend on our personal finance show Marketplace Money.

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