Feb 25 The suspected kidnapping and murder
of a Montana teacher by two men said to be seeking work in the
oilfields of North Dakota underscores the darker side of a
regional energy boom that has pumped jobs and money as well as
newcomers and crime into rural towns.
Stepped-up oil and gas development in northwestern North
Dakota and northeastern Montana is punctuating the landscape
with drilling rigs, trucks and hastily erected barracks, known
as "man camps," to house thousands of mostly male workers
crowding into small communities where residents once greeted
each other by name and left their homes and cars unlocked.
Even as oil and gas companies pour hundreds of millions of
tax dollars into those states, leaders of boomtowns like
Williston, North Dakota, and neighboring Sidney, Montana, say
they are ill-equipped to cope with the rapid influx of people,
traffic, construction, crime and soaring demand for housing.
"If it had been gradual ... but that's not how a boom works;
the thing happens overnight," said David Montgomery, a Williams
County commissioner whose district encompasses Williston, where
the population has swelled to an estimated 20,000 from 14,000 in
In Sidney, Montana, about 45 miles (72 km) southwest of
Williston, officials have been scrambling to keep pace with oil
and gas activity that is expected to double the population -
from 5,000 to 10,000 - in five years and add an estimated 774
new students to the public school system.
The town was unprepared for a months-long spike in
crime that culminated Jan. 7 with the abduction and violent
death of a local high school math teacher, Sherry Arnold,
according to Mayor Bret Smelser.
"Sherry's case brings all of this into focus," he said.
Two men, Lester Vann Waters, 47, and Michael Keith Spell,
22, are charged with aggravated kidnapping in the disappearance
of Arnold, who authorities believe was snatched off the street
as she jogged near the suspects along a truck route in Sidney.
According to the sworn statement of the prosecutor
overseeing the investigation, Waters was looking for a woman to
abduct and kill when he strangled Arnold, 43, in a crack
cocaine-induced frenzy in the back of his Ford Explorer.
The prosecutor's affidavit says Spell confessed to helping
bury Arnold in a shallow grave. Her body has not been recovered.
Court documents say the two men had come from Parachute,
Colorado, a city that has experienced economic ebbs and flows
linked to oil shale, to find work in Williston.
OVERWHELMED IN WILLISTON
Thousands of high-paying jobs have prompted the unemployed
and under-employed from cash-strapped states across the nation
to flock to the Williston area.
The energy boom is tied to a vast oil shale formation that
stretches across parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. The
Bakken formation contains the largest known reserve of light
sweet crude in North America and is the source of 113 million
barrels of oil produced in 2010 in North Dakota. The sparsely
populated state ranked behind only Texas, Alaska and California
among U.S. oil producers.
The Bakken was discovered in 1951, but development - which
has occurred off and on since then - accelerated about three
years ago along with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or
fracking. The production-boosting technique injects large
amounts of water, chemicals and sand underground to crack rocks
or dense sands holding fuel.
Senior citizens on fixed incomes and other residents unable
to meet monthly rents that can skyrocket from $300 to $3,000
have been pushed out of the community even as some oilfield
workers living in their cars - despite annual salaries that can
top $100,000 - have joined a local health club to gain access to
the facility's showers.
Fast-food and retail chains have been hard-pressed to retain
workers amid the lure of higher-paying, plentiful energy jobs,
and long lines have become commonplace in motels, restaurants
and grocery stores. Business also has climbed at the two strip
clubs in the city.
"It will never be the same - but that's progress," said
Montgomery, a native.
FEAR AND FIREARMS
Evidence in Sidney and in Williston suggests worries about
the downsides of the energy boom are displacing the optimism
that came with ramped-up production and revenues.
"Without Sherry, we had some people looking and thinking,
'We may need to re-think this,'" Smelser said. "With her death,
people are saying, 'We really do need to re-think this.'"
Having suffered the gravest harm, the city is now looking
for a heftier share of the taxes paid by energy companies so
that Sidney can augment its law enforcement and other municipal
services, the mayor said.
The farming community enrolled 101 new students last year
with no additional revenues to offset the increase, said Dan
Farr, superintendent of Sidney schools.
"We have received families from every state in the union,
and the culture in the classroom has changed," he said, adding
that teachers have logged long hours restructuring lessons and
lesson plans to encompass varying degrees of academic ability.
Talk in town since Arnold vanished has centered on "how are
we going to protect ourselves," said Joanna Hughes, co-owner of
a Sidney consignment store that carries firearms.
In the span of a year, the shop has doubled the number of
handguns and rifles it stocks, and sales are soaring, she said.
The sense of foreboding has not stopped at the state line.
"There is a lot of fear in northwest North Dakota right now,
especially with what's happened to Mrs. Arnold," said
Montgomery, the county commissioner from Williston.
Utah State University sociologist Richard Krannich said
years-long studies of boomtowns in the West show a sharp rise in
negative consequences such as crime and the fear of crime in the
earliest phases of a boom.
"But we also saw the recovery once the initial phase ended
and the workforce stabilized, the pressure on local services
eased and infrastructure caught up with demand," he said.
That recovery can't come too soon for some.
"When I look at Sidney, as opposed to a large city where
crime happens frequently, these things aren't supposed to happen
in small-town USA," Farr, the school superintendent, said.