Impact stories: Marquart writes about her month inside the Bakken oil boom

Note: Professor of English Debra Marquart returned to her native North Dakota in November, one of two writers under a grant by the North Dakota Humanities Council to gather the stories and experiences of people whose lives have been impacted from the Bakken oil boom.

Vestiges of the old farming generations still exist on the landscape.

Vestiges of the old farming generations still exist on the landscape.

By Debra Marquart
In a rented Subaru Outback, I traveled just under 5000 miles in three and a half weeks in the Bakken, reading from my work and teaching creative writing workshops in thirteen communities in western North Dakota especially impacted by the oil boom. I was traveling and sharing teaching responsibilities with a young writer named Taylor Brorby, also a native of North Dakota.

The class was structured in such a way that I visited each town twice to teach a sequence of two-hour writing classes. First, I discussed short published pieces of writing, introduced the basic principles of good writing practices to students, then administered a series of writing prompts to the class, which I hoped would prime the pump of their creativity.

Traveling west of Dickinson heading into the Badlands on I-94.

Traveling west of Dickinson heading into the Badlands on I-94.

At the end of the first class in the sequence, I gave them an assignment to come back in two weeks with a piece of writing, something short – two poems or five pages of prose. I suppose I drove away from each of those towns after the first class with the thought that no one would come back for the second class, much less with their homework assignment done.  Nothing was binding them to the class. It was free – all the expenses paid for by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

But I was surprised that when I returned to each town two weeks later, most of them came back with some really fine writing. They had dug deep for stories. For the most part, these were not trained writers. Their ages and professions varied widely – from high school students to people in their eighties. In Williston, a town in the very center of the boom, I had a large group of about twenty, most of whom were either working directly in the oil fields – on rigs or as drivers – or people who worked in professions peripheral to the boom, such as construction.

The well pads are set up roughly at two-mile intervals.  Here was one that had three or four wells drilling on one pad, which is kind of unusual.

The well pads are set up roughly at two-mile intervals. Here was one that had three or four wells drilling on one pad, which is kind of unusual. Notice the flare in the right hand side of the picture? This is to burn off some of the natural gas that’s coming up to the surface with the oil. (Companies are allowed to burn off 30% of the natural gas they bring to the surface because the state has not developed the infrastructure to collect it.)

20 below and the awe of something new
Many of their stories and our conversations centered on the logistical difficulties of the boom – the increase in traffic, the danger of sharing two-lane highways and gravel county roads with water and oil tankers that run constantly day and night. (Several students brought essays about losing friends or family members in gruesome traffic accidents.) Some of the oil workers spoke beautifully about the sheer terror and wonder of being out in the harsh elements of North Dakota in 20 below zero weather, trying to keep everything from freezing up, and the ever present clipper winds barreling down from Alberta. They described their awe at the idea of being present when something was brought up to the surface of the earth from two miles down that no human has ever seen or touched before.

Not all the stories were about oil or weather or bad traffic. Oddly, several people wrote about their obsessions with collecting stones. (North Dakota doesn’t have mountains or a lot of lakes, but we have an abundance of stones.) People wrote about the long tradition of multi-generational farming. One woman wrote a very funny essay about lutefisk as an acquired taste. Many people wrote about the beauty of the landscape of western North Dakota, which is so little understood or even seen by the rest of the country.

What I saw was people caught up in a modern day gold rush. Many of them had

migrated to North Dakota from Texas or Colorado, Wyoming, Florida, Wisconsin, Alaska or Arizona to find work. The locals – the people whose families had homesteaded the region or who had been there before the boom – were making an effort to be hospitable, but I also saw evidence of frustration and aggression toward the new wave of people brought in by the boom. After all, crime has risen to phenomenal levels. Not only petty crimes like theft and bar brawls, but increased incidences of violence such as rape and murder are happening daily.

A famous case a few years ago involved a high school math teacher and mother of two children in Sidney, Montana, who was jogging on one of the roads just at the edge of Sidney. She was grabbed off the road by two men just passing through town on their way to the Bakken to find work. They raped and strangled her, then buried her in a shallow grave. The police did manage to find the killers. One of the chilling details from this crime is that the killers bought a shovel at Wal-Mart to bury her, then they returned the shovel a few days later. This is how the police were ultimately able to learn their identities, through studying the Wal-Mart surveillance footage.

Increased crime
This is a pretty graphic illustration of the kind of crime that’s on the rise in North Dakota, but the crimes can also be surreal. During the time that I was there, a guy entered a church one Saturday night during services and robbed the people in the church. This was in a town of about 600 people. The strain on the police forces in these communities is staggering. They are dealing with a sharp rise in crime with little help from the state to provide funds to hire or train new officers. In the meantime, law enforcement is aware that more sophisticated criminal elements are moving into the region, including sex workers, drug rings, and organized crime. There’s even evidence of human trafficking in the region. Apparently, these are the things that come along with a boom – so much money flowing, and so much money to be made in an environment where criminal elements can work unfettered by law enforcement.

The EMT workers and firefighters in these communities are also stretched to a limit. Most of the towns in the Bakken range in population between 7 people and 1000, with only volunteer firefighters and paramedics. (Williston is the largest city in the region at about 18,000.) So with all the fires, explosions, oil site accidents, violent crimes, and catastrophic traffic accidents, the volunteer EMT and firefighter workers are being asked to perform at levels one would expect from a paid emergency response force.

Some of the most disconcerting issues related to the boom are those that are not being talked about yet – in particular, the environmental effects. Small and large spills of fracking fluid, salinated water, and oil are a daily event. After a large leak in a Tesoro pipeline was discovered in Tioga, North Dakota, spilling around 20,000 barrels (which is about 840,000 gallons of oil) into a farmer’s field, it took the state regulatory commission two weeks to report the news of the spill to the general public. This led to a public outcry in the state for better reporting and more transparency. Within two months, the state government agreed to put up a website that provides detailed information about each spill in the state. The data is stunning – hundreds of spills of small and large magnitude in any twelve month period, going back for the last five years.

Fracking fluid
Although it’s not possible to know precisely what’s in fracking fluid (the exact chemical composition that’s used is protected under law as proprietary knowledge to the corporations), it usually contains several chemicals that are known carcinogens, not to mention a small percentage (under 1%) of diesel fuel to keep the fluid from freezing. The health effects of these spills will likely not be realized for many years, but perhaps some of the first casualties will be the workers themselves who handle the materials on a daily basis – getting it on their skin, breathing it in.

In stores and gas stations when I was traveling in the Bakken, I saw many workers who appeared to just be getting off work. Their faces, hands, and clothes would be covered in oil and mud. They might be stopping in at the gas station for cigarettes, or picking up fast food, or heading into the liquor store for a six pack of beer, and all I could think about was that they would be tracking the oil and mud into their homes with whatever chemicals were contained in it. They and their families would be walking in it, eating, breathing, sitting in it.

Recently I read that some oil companies are donating several millions dollars to add new wings to the hospitals in Williston and Dickinson, the two larger cities where the boom is especially strong. The newspaper report indicated that the money would go to build new hospital wings that would provide state-of-the-art cancer treatment to the people of the region. The report struck me as ironic – that oil companies could anticipate exactly what the region would most need, in terms of human health care, in the years to come.