Bakken Oil Boom Brings Growing Pains to Small Montana Town

An influx of workers leaves housing scarce—and the jail full.

At the edge of a farmer's wheat field outside the prairie town of Bainville, Montana, Justin and Mandy Tolbert's 36-foot camper sat in a rented lot. For more than 20 months, the Tolberts lived in the camper with their six children, ages 5 to 12, and Justin's adult cousin.

At night, a jumble of pillows and cushions on the floor served as sleeping space. In August, when temperatures approached 100°F, the camper cooked. In January, the temperature dipped to -20°F, freezing the pipes and leaving the family without water for days.

"The hardest part [is] winter, when they cannot get outside to play," Mandy Tolbert said about her children. "It's not like a house where they can run around."

The Tolberts are far from poor. Justin makes more than $200,000 a year as an oil pipeline welder in the Bakken oil field. The family owns a two-story home with an in-ground pool in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They drive a $50,000 four-wheel-drive van.

The Tolberts moved here in 2012 as part of a massive migration of workers chasing their fortunes in the Bakken shale, where a revolution in drilling technology led by fracking has pushed United States oil production to a 24-year high.

Like many oil boom families, the Tolberts left home to find a brighter future. They chose to live in rural Montana to avoid the bustle at the center of the oil rush 30 miles away, in Williston, North Dakota.

But the explosive growth that deterred them from Williston is spreading to small Montana border towns such as Bainville, causing severe housing shortages and growing pains.

Although only a small fraction of Bakken wells are in Montana, where oil production peaked in 2006, nearby oil industry development and an influx of workers have maxed out the town's water system, destroyed roads, and introduced drugs and violent crimes unheard of by generations of farmers and ranchers.

Roosevelt County's tiny, 100-year-old jail has suffered overcrowding as the population grows and crime rises.

From left to right, Mark Pacovsky, Shellie Pacovsky, Bernie Popp, and Paula Warren meet at the Welcome Stop café. Shellie Pacovsky said she pushed a camper off her property with a tractor when she found out that it had become an adult massage parlor.

"For Sale" signs dot the landscape near Bainville, Montana. The explosive growth from the oil boom of North Dakota has spread to small Montana border towns like Bainville.

The Lure of Oil Salaries

"If you wish for this oil, be careful what you wish for, because life as you know it is done," said Ken Norgaard, road department supervisor for Roosevelt County, the vast and sparsely populated county of rolling farmland that includes Bainville.


County jobs were once coveted for their solid benefits and retirement plan, Norgaard said. Now, he has trouble finding workers. Norgaard advertised a road grader job as far away as Wyoming. In six months, he received two applications.

In the oil field, truck drivers make more than twice what the $17-an-hour county job pays, Norgaard said. The oil industry is also destroying the county's gravel roads, which were originally built for the earliest cars and small farm equipment. Heavy trucks hauling hundreds of gallons of fracking water have turned the country roads to washboards. When it rains, the gravel washes out and strands school buses.

"I've got plenty of equipment; what I need is manpower," Norgaard said. "I need to get my wages up to where I can compete with the oil patch."

The K-12 Bainville School faces similar challenges. The influx of oil workers has pushed rent for run-down mobile homes to upwards of $2,500 a month. Teachers, whose salaries start at $33,000, can't afford housing. At the same time, student enrollment has more than doubled to 165 since 2009.

"We have had to get creative," said school superintendent Renee Rasmussen, who graduated from the school in 1973, one of a class of ten. In the past few years, Rasmussen said, the school bought 13 homes to house many of its teachers.

Before the oil boom, the school was in danger of closing. Now classes are filled beyond capacity, and girls line up to use one of three bathroom stalls in the elementary school's bathroom.

One January afternoon, Rasmussen faced a more immediate crisis—finding a way to get the kids home from school. Rasmussen has struggled to hire school bus drivers, even after increasing wages to $24 an hour. She has recruited the school lunch cook and the janitor to drive buses. But on that day, an out-of-town basketball game left Rasmussen scrambling to find an additional driver.

Despite the problems, Rasmussen thinks development has improved the school and Bainville. But she worries that the small town flavor of Bainville, where oil millionaires dress like poor farmers and sometimes forget to cash their oil checks, may be changing.

"The big crisis is this," Rasmussen said. "How can we allow the growth to happen, welcome people here, and at the same time remain who we are?"

Oil production has ramped up so quickly in North Dakota that much of the natural gas that comes up with the oil is flared off as a by-product. The industry and officials are working to build infrastructure to capture the gas.

Justin Tolbert kisses his seven-year-old son, Josiah, after getting home late from his job working as an oil pipeline welder.

Mandy Tolbert, far left, moved to Bainville with her husband and six children from Tulsa, Oklahoma, so that her husband could work in the Bakken.

Municipal Budgets Strained

Bainville's growing pains are likely to get much worse. In May, the United States Geological Survey doubled its 2008 estimate of oil resources in the Bakken and the Three Forks formation, which lies below the Bakken.

In early 2013, Procore Group Inc., of Alberta, Canada, built a rail facility in Bainville to unload the sand used in the hydraulic fracturing process, which will be trucked to wells across the Bakken. A sprawling "man camp" that can house 350 oil workers also has been built, which required the town to double the size of its sewer lagoon. The expansion was paid for by Procore.

Bainville mayor Dennis Portra said there are plans for a hotel, a gas station, and additional residential housing. Portra said Bainville's population has doubled since 2010 to about 450, and will likely double again in the next couple of years.

Portra is a proponent of oil industry growth. The boom has provided jobs for his three adult children. But he was dismayed in 2013, when Montana Governor Steve Bullock vetoed a bill that would have provided $35 million to municipalities struggling with oil and gas industry development.

Montana towns like Bainville, Portra said, are suffering the effects of the boom, while others are getting rich. The majority of the Bakken wells, and tax revenue, are in North Dakota. For oil drilled in Montana, the state takes 50 percent of tax revenue. Counties and schools across the state receive most of the remainder. Towns and cities share only one-tenth of one percent.

"Why should it come back to the local taxpayer to pony up for schools, roads, water, and police when we are sending millions to the general fund?" Portra asked.

Bullock's deputy chief of staff Kevin O'Brien said the governor supports increasing funding for towns in the Bakken, but he said the governor vetoed the bill to help balance the state's budget.

"The governor intimately feels their pain," O'Brien said.

Laura Ward pushes a packed shopping cart at the Walmart in Williston, North Dakota, the center of the oil rush. The town lies 30 miles from Bainville.

Bainville's school has struggled to find teachers and school bus drivers—the wage competition from the oil industry is strong, and housing is in short supply.

Deputy Avis Ball sits on the side of Route 2 in Bainville. Ball often patrols the eastern edge of the county alone, an hour from the nearest backup deputy.

Crime on the Rise

Among the changes in Bainville, none has locals on edge like the increase in crime. In 2012, two Colorado men looking for work in the oil field allegedly killed a popular math teacher in nearby Sidney, Montana, and buried her body along a highway outside Williston. Soon after, Roosevelt County bought a new file cabinet to store the rush of concealed-weapon applications.

On a recent evening, as Roosevelt County Sheriff's Deputy Avis Ball patrolled near Bainville, she pointed out a simple cross next to the highway. It's the spot where in 2012 she found Brian Doyle, a 49-year-old oil worker from Florida, dead and partially buried in the snow. Doyle was run over and abandoned by his friend, who was later convicted of negligent homicide.

"He'd been laying there for a week in the snow," said Ball, who patrols the eastern edge of the county alone, often an hour from the nearest backup deputy at the far end of the county.

Earlier this year, Ball said, four men beat a man nearly to death in Williston, put him in the trunk of a car, and dropped him off in a field in Roosevelt County. "When I started, I was taking dog calls," said Ball, who joined the department in 2011. "Since then it has taken off."

The FBI has warned that Mexican drug cartels are trafficking drugs to the area, targeting the large paychecks of the mostly young men who work in the Bakken. Felony drug arrests in Roosevelt County rose from 4 to 28 from 2008 to 2012, according to Sheriff Freedom Crawford. Crawford said methamphetamine is the biggest drug problem the county faces, followed by illegal painkillers. But a bigger problem, he said, is the increase in alcohol-fueled fistfights. From 2008 to 2012, assault arrests nearly doubled, to 173.

"Historically, we knew who our troublemakers are," Crawford said. "Now after the oil field hit, we can't keep up with it. We don't know who these people are."

The spike has taxed the county's tiny 100-year-old jail, which Crawford said has held as many as 40 people, more than double the number it held before the boom. Jail overcrowding led to American Civil Liberties Union scrutiny that pressured Crawford to limit capacity to 17. On a recent afternoon, only one inmate was local, the others from as far away as Florida. Crawford said the county is planning a new 40-bed jail that can be expanded to 60 beds if the oil boom continues.

But Crawford faces more immediate concerns. In April, Ball's landlord sold the home where she lived with her four children. She had to be out by the end of May, but Ball, who is a single mother, couldn't find a home she could afford. Instead, she moved into a motel room, which she hopes is temporary. Her children are living with friends until Ball finds another home.

But Ball doubts she can find a home to rent on her sheriff's deputy salary, which she said is less than $22 an hour.

"I'm not ready to leave my job here," Ball said. "I have not met my goals. But if we have no place to live, we are backed into a corner."

Deputy Avis Ball stands next to a cross where she found Brian Doyle, 49, dead on the side of Route 2 in Bainville. Doyle had been run over and abandoned.

Despite the transformation being wrought by oil development in the region, much of the landscape near Bainville is still open terrain traversed by narrow roads and railways.

A Changing Way of Life

Many of the changes that frustrate locals don't make the crime statistics sheet. On an early morning at the Welcome Stop, a two-pump gas station and convenience store in Bainville, a group of locals sat drinking coffee at a round table and talked about hunters trespassing on their land, drunken men wandering the streets at night, and petty theft.

"You used to drive your pickup to town, leave your keys inside and your rifle in the back window. You can't do that anymore," said Dan Lambert, a town sewer worker.

Shellie Pacovsky, the town's senior emergency response technician, said a woman who asked to park her camper on Pacovsky's property later opened an adult massage parlor with signs and online advertisements. When the woman refused to leave, Pacovsky pushed her car off the property with her John Deere tractor.

"We were very naive," Pacovsky said. "We were not expecting things that happen in other places to happen here."

If the boom has stretched the patience of many locals, it has been a boon to the now-millionaire farmers and ranchers who own land where oil has been struck, and to Bainville's newest residents, who work the wells.

In August, Tony and Tanya Tippett were in danger of losing their house in Georgia over back taxes when Tony's brother called from this area with stories of hard work and hefty paychecks.

Although Tony's brother was living in a sleeping bag near a truck stop in Williston, Tony and Tanya decided to join him. Tony now makes $2,000 a week after taxes working for an oil well servicing company. Tanya works behind the counter at the Welcome Stop.

Like many families here, the Tippetts live in a camper. They share it with Tony's brother and a bulldog, paying $800 a month to park in a campground. Tony said he plans to stay in Bainville for five years, "depending on how much we can stomach the cold."

With not enough pipeline capacity to handle the volumes being produced out of the Bakken shale, the majority of oil is transported by rail.

Kirk Panasuk, a rancher and farmer in Bainville, has watched with other longtime residents as the area experiences the growing pains of the oil boom.

Tony commutes to Williston, but he said he would never move his family there. Like the locals, Tony likes the small town atmosphere of Bainville, even if the influx of workers means he is forced to live in a camper. "It's rougher over there," he said of Williston.

As for the Tolberts, they are not sure they will ever move back to Tulsa. As long as the work holds out, they plan to stay in Bainville. After making it through a winter of frozen pipes and six kids in a camper, the Tolberts moved into a house in April and bought three sheep for their children.

Justin Tolbert renovated the 1,000-square-foot house, which is owned by a local school bus driver and used to be a small office building, in exchange for several months of rent.

Mandy Tolbert says her children miss sleeping together in one room, but they sometimes visit the old camper, which didn't sit vacant long. Justin's friend from Tulsa, who is also a welder, recently moved in with his wife and four children. Like the Tolberts, they plan to stay, if the oil work lasts.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.