Booming Bakken town struggles to adapt as 'Gillette syndrome' sets in

In Williston, N.D. -- the heart of the Bakken Shale -- the town's permanent population has risen 13 percent, and its unemployment rate has dropped 1.6 percentage points since 2009. Call volume at the police department, meanwhile, is up 260 percent.

"It's a staffing nightmare," said Detective Dave Peterson of the Williston City Police Department. Last year, the department hired six new officers, but "our needs have already exceeded what they hired the new officers to handle."

It's a familiar phenomenon in oil and gas boomtowns known to some as "Gillette syndrome."

Named after the coal mining town of Gillette, Wyo., the term -- coined in 1974 by psychologist ElDean Kohrs -- describes the negative consequences that can befall a community that pursues energy development.

In his watershed paper, titled "Social Consequences of Boom Growth in Wyoming," Kohrs paints a picture of a sleepy Wyoming town suddenly beset with a rise in population, a lack of housing and an uptick in crime.


In Williston, Andrew Lewis is looking to capture some of these social effects in his fledgling reality television series "Boomtown Girls." A YouTube clip gives a glimpse of the story, which follows five sisters who have lived in Williston all their lives and are now working in the male-dominated energy industry.

"People are leaving their wives, their kids, their families and their inhibitions at home," one of the sisters says in a voice-over in the video. "They're coming here, they're making money, and they're all trying to run around proving they're men."

Since about 2007, job seekers have been arriving in Williston only to find there is no place for them to live. With no houses and limited hotel capacity, workers are living in "man camps," which are temporary accommodations meant to hold large crowds of migrant workers. The dormlike living conditions for hordes of young, single men sometimes give rise to drinking and other rowdy behavior.

That type of behavior has a significant impact in a town that has a history of traditional values and where residents have long felt safe enough to leave their doors unlocked at night, Lewis said.

Police response

Living in a more populous -- and arguably more dangerous -- community has caused worry among some residents, said Peterson, who now works with female employees of oil companies to teach them to be more aware of their surroundings and to avoid potentially risky situations.

Peterson said the biggest challenge for the department has been predicting how many people it will need to hire to accommodate the town's rapidly changing law enforcement needs. While Peterson knows it will soon need to hire more, the exact number will depend on internal evaluations of public and department needs, as well as city officials' projections of the energy boom's longevity.

Beyond the spike in call volume, the department has had to deal with more severe issues, like drug abuse and murder, on a regular basis.

Peterson said that anytime a town sees a population influx, its crime log is almost guaranteed to grow, simply by virtue of statistics.

"Anytime you have a population increase, you are also going to have an increase in those who are addicted to and abuse controlled substances," as well as those who commit other types of crimes, he said.

To address the narcotics issue, the department, with the help of donations from oil and gas companies, was able to acquire Molly, a new canine officer who is trained to sniff out drugs.

Industry contributions

Although energy firms have chipped in on the city's canine unit and on some housing projects, industry critics say companies should be doing more.

Ken Toole, president of the left-leaning Montana-based Policy Institute, said companies in his state, which has seen some spillover effects from the boom, and in North Dakota have failed to correct workers' "machismo" attitudes, which Toole said are contributing to the region's problems.

"It's chump change compared to the need," Toole said of industry's efforts. Industry-sponsored social service programs are "not even a blip on the radar."

He acknowledged that changing the culture in a workplace known for its long hours and hard labor might be a challenge.

"It's a hard life, and I just don't see counselors out there on the rigs," Toole said.

Companies are often able to control employee behavior to some extent because they usually own the man camps where workers live, said North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness. With housing in short supply, employees are usually in desperate need of company-provided living quarters. If employers catch wind of bad behavior, that worker stands to lose not just his job, but also his housing, leaving him with no place to stay should he choose to seek another job in Williston.

While housing can be a huge incentive for good behavior, the slaying last month of Sidney, Mont., teacher Sherry Arnold illustrated that oil and gas companies have only so much power over the influx of new residents. The two men accused of killing Arnold did not have jobs but came to the area seeking work in the oil patch. When blame for the crime turned to the oil and gas industry, a North Dakota Petroleum Council executive said companies have no control over nonemployees (EnergyWire, April 24).

Lessons from Gillette

Incoming job seekers who were unable to find work were a major source of Gillette's problems in the 1970s, said Dave Spencer, northeast regional director of the Wyoming Business Council. Spencer is also the former director of community development in Gillette, although he did not assume that role until after the coal boom in the 1970s.

Cities need to focus on capturing the economic benefits a boom can bring, but they must be careful not to advertise those benefits too broadly, or else they risk attracting people without the proper skill sets to find jobs in the industry, Spencer said.

Considering the proliferation of reports touting the vast job opportunities boomtowns have to offer, being unemployed in places like Williston can pack a major blow to the spirit, he said. The situation can add familial as well as financial pressures if a worker has a spouse and children at home.

Although the peak of Gillette's most recent coal boom is over, people still travel to the town in search of work. Gillette maintains a large homeless shelter, soup kitchen and community service counseling program to this day, Spencer said.

He added that he cautions city officials from making too many permanent investments during a boom. Like Williston, Gillette also raced to house workers during busy periods, but when the bust hit in the 1980s, the town was left with a lot of empty homes. Temporary accommodations like man camps are a better choice, Spencer said.

There may be temptation to spend money when times are good, he said, but officials should keep in mind that energy development is cyclical and will eventually end.

"People will make decisions based on thinking it's going to last a lot longer than it actually is," Spencer said.

Like Gillette, Williston has seen booms in the past, but city officials expect Bakken activity to last longer than past operations because the shale play, which spans more than 200,000 square miles, is so large and energy-rich. Because of that, the town has taken an aggressive approach to building new housing.

Despite the social and developmental growing pains that sometimes accompany an energy boom, Lewis, the "Boomtown Girls" producer, said Williston residents have welcomed the growth -- disruptions and all.

"They would rather have the problem than have the alternative, which is no economy," he said.

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