“It’s Not a Boom, It’s an Industry”

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The signs of growth are everywhere outside towns like Williston. Growth mainly in the oil industry–drilling and pumping–but also population growth in temporary settlements that last popped up in the area in the early 80’s. We’re here in order to sort out the reality of this growth; where is it happening, how, for whom, why? Some of the answers seem relatively straightforward, like the oil companies bringing transient workers into the area to fuel their growth on the petroleum market. But others are much less straightforward, like the growing needs of a population of migrant workers that seem to be determined to ride it out here.

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To be here means a spatial experience, a way to see all of the un-photographable, between the lines conditions that pop up in such a crazy situation. There are areas of dense industrial, commercial and residential activity in the “big 5,” Williston, Ray, Tioga, Watford City and Stanley, but these towns are also a small piece of an industry that is so widely distributed that much is invisible in town. Today, we traveled to Watford City, which lies 41 miles to the SE of Williston across the Missouri River in Mackenzie County. Some things are becoming a normal sight. There are lines of rigs everywhere along the section grid (look at the organization of wells). Seeing the spatial implications of this planned deployment of drilling operations reminds us that this industry is incredibly attentive to its technological and industrial needs. Yet, the oil industry can ignore the residuals, like how its workers are living, and how their settlements are organized.

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After all, the boom is fueled by an industry. This industry would do the same things to drill and extract oil anywhere in the world; its not a developer, urban planner, sociologist, or preservationist. So the dichotomy that we are seeing here is the awkward interface between a mechanism that is built to overcome the challenges of place, and the sense of place in the region where this industry is thriving.

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Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City reveals the in-betweens of growth in the Bakken. It looks like they’ve already prepped for doubling the width of the highway to accommodate for more passing lanes. The passing lanes create a rhythm of traffic waiting for the chance to pass slow moving semis. Two speeds of transportation awkwardly, and dangerously, share the same network. Although we’re on the route between the two cities, most of the industrial traffic has abstract destinations like SC-TOM- 2560-153-98-1514-2223H-1, aka one of the thousands of wells in the area. Another popular destination is one of the facilities in the rapidly expanding network of salt-water disposals. We visited the Alati Saltwater Disposal just outside of Watford City to see one of the most popular types of destinations for all of the trucks on the road.

These facilities process flowback and maintenance water into a form that is acceptable for disposal 10,000 feet underground. The woman who runs the place was incredibly friendly (like everyone we have met here) and took time to show us around the pump house, well house, and the rest of the sprawling compound of tanks and pipes. Truckers pull up, hook up and wait inside the trailer lounge with two bathrooms that feels like a nice refuge from the machinery outside. Inside, we ran into Chris and Will, two truckers from Oregon and Texas respectively. However, Will has been living in Afghanistan for the past 9 years and has an international travel resume that would rival any seasoned diplomat. These guys were curious about our project and forthcoming about their experience. They complained about housing and crime. One has a family he supports in the area, and the other wouldn’t risk bringing them up here. To them, trucking is a game that’s as speculative as the oil play, and they’re ready to get out whenever the goin’ gets tough.

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