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UND researchers study impact of oil boom's temporary housing

GRAND FORKS -- Long after the oil boom and its workers have left, sprawling patches of leveled gravel, colored only by hints of blue tarp or a few grommets, may be all that's left of crew camps in western North Dakota.

At least that's what University of North Dakota professors William Caraher and Bret Weber imagine as they collect information on crew camps from five cities in the Oil Patch. Grommets, once attached to the blue tarp used for housing, and some staples from disintegrated wood pallets could be found. Fragments of utilities masts or bits of plastic might litter the ground or there may be nothing at all, they say.

Since April, Caraher and Weber have led a small team twice to these cities to study, in part, the "signature" a camp leaves on the landscape. The idea first came about over beers, said Caraher, and it turned into a research project.

"These man camps are only going to be there for 20 or 30 years, depending on labor needs," said Caraher, who has a background studying ancient Cyprus. "What's that going to look like in 300 or 500 years?"

Crew camps 101

Caraher and his team visited Tioga, Stanley and Ray, along U.S. Highway 2, and Watford City and Alexander, south of Tioga. They've studied 30 camps so far and broken them down into three kinds.

Type 1 camps are located closer to cities and offer comfortable living, where the food is good and the rooms clean -- at one camp the team stayed at, a maid cleaned daily. Built by Target Logistics and Halliburton, these prefabricated camps are notable for their tight restrictions on alcohol -- none is allowed -- and lack of domestic space. Type 1 camps could range from a couple hundred beds to more than 2,000, and the cost could run $100 or more per bed per night.

The "institutional barrack" style lodging is made by the same companies that made barracks in Afghanistan and Iraq, Weber said.

"There's really no social life," he said. "It's a really sterile environment."

Type 2 camps represent RV parks, less formal environments that could hold an area for a grill, or maybe a wood pallet used as a front step or a place to keep boots clean. The largest Type 2 camp the team encountered had a few hundred trailers, Caraher said. Lots without trailers in these camps can cost $800 to $1,000 per month.

"The overall impression that we got was that people in Type 2 camps had lived a little bit in one of the fancier camps, and just got tired of living in a place where there was almost no social space," Caraher said. "If you're going to be out in the oil fields for two, three years, you might as well buy an RV and pay a little extra money so you can have your guns and your beer and a grill outside."

People in Type 3 camps were usually living in tents or broken down campers within shelterbelts or behind farmer's buildings. Like Type 2 camps, they can be found more on the periphery of cities.

The research team's main distinction between Type 2 and 3 camps was the water and sewage hookup, which is a matter of residents' comfort and public health.

"It's a constant management problem, and so that little white pipe is terribly important. It's a huge difference for life in the camps," Weber said. "If there was a hook-up, then everybody's in a nice, neat row, you're paying rent and there's some order to living there."

Caraher said they believe Type 1 camps will leave almost no signature on the landscape as they're designed to be completely portable, while Type 2 and Type 3 camps might leave more. Type 2 camps might have had pallets or other discarded objects thrown aside from residents, while Type 3 had the least access to trash removal.

Hard luck

It might seem that workers are maximizing their money by intentionally living in poor conditions, but that's not what they found, they said. The ones living this way were in the minority, and they hated being away from their families and living in substandard housing, Weber said.

"Mainly, I was seeing people who did not want to be living that way, who were kind of stuck waiting for jobs," Weber said.

Through this experience, he said he's realized crew camps are an inappropriate solution to a temporary problem.

"Both the county and state government have a responsibility to make sure people have a decent place to live, whether it's temporary or not," he said. "When we have people coming to the state and there's no sewage, nowhere to take a shower, we're making enough money as a state to offer that basic stuff."

Weber, who has a background in social work and was recently elected to the Grand Forks City Council, said he finds the project relevant to his work. He's currently in the process of working with the community college at the Fort Berthold Indian reservation to find out the impact of the oil boom on Indian Country, he said. He's also interviewed county social service directors to find out how it affects social services around the state.

"I'm interested in the well-being of communities," he said.


Of the thousands of workers in the Oil Patch, Caraher and Weber's team has so far interviewed 36, a quarter of which were women.

Most tended to be 45 and younger, and told stories of hard luck mixed with making it big -- they found people in Type 3 camps making good money and ones in Type 1 camps going broke, Weber said.

Overall, the experience out there seemed less like the Wild West and more like a scene from the "Grapes of Wrath," a novel by John Steinbeck following a poor family's experience as migrants during the Great Depression, he said.

"We went to one camp where the whole camp was getting ready for a labor walk-out," Weber said. "They hadn't been paid for a few weeks. They were working really hard -- they'd been promised one thing and were getting another. They'd come out there with the promise of making big money, and they were living hard."

The team plans to head back several times with different teams to further their research, particularly in the winter to see what strategies residents take to make their living situation more habitable, Caraher said.

Funding for the project came from the Institute of Energy Studies at UND and the vice president for collaborative research. It's a success story for that kind of grant, he said.

"We'll continue off and on as long as the oil boom continues to make it interesting, and certainly if the boom busts," Caraher said.