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The North Dakota Oil Fracking Boom Creates Clash of Money and Devastation

This is a story about one tribal nation grappling with the stresses of life during oil time - housing, traffic, crime, crowds, their quality of life.

This story was produced with support from the  Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

NEW TOWN N.D. --When the black gold rush began, no one on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation expected it to take down Main Street.

A modest strip of one- and two-story buildings framed by undulating plains, Main Street doubled as the reservation’s community hub, in the tradition of small towns. Neighbors caught up at the Jack and Jill grocery, elders strolled to the library, children rode their bikes on the streets.

No one imagined tanker trucks barreling up and down Main Street, back-to-back like freight trains, seven days and nights a week.  No one predicted construction zones that grind traffic to a halt as far as the eye can see, the deafening clatter of semis, the dust kicked up by 10,000 vehicles pulverizing the two-lane road every day or the smell and taste of diesel. No one anticipated the accidents, two or more a week on Main Street and all over the rutted reservation roads, costing lives and shattering families.

In fact, Fort Berthold, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or Three Affiliated Tribes, did not reckon on a lot when North Dakota invited the energy industry to Drill Baby Drill. No one knew that energy companies in search of housing for their workers would buy private property and evict some of the reservation’s poorest residents from their homes. No one planned on police and fire calls multiplying. No one guessed that on a reservation of nearly one million acres, all the deer would disappear.

In the heart of the refuge of recession America, this little-known tribe is grappling mightily with the consequences of striking oil.

“It’s horrible,” said Becky Deschamp, a 41-year-old lifelong Fort Berthold resident.

Deschamp offered that verdict while packing her trailer, not by choice. In November, an oil company bought the run-down Prairie Winds Trailer Park two blocks off Main Street where she and her husband and two children have lived for seven years.  With land and housing nearly impossible to find, the park’s 45 families—more than 180 adults and children in all— were given two extensions before the final Aug. 31 deadline to leave.

Just six weeks before the deadline, when the tribe cleared and prepared a lot three miles outside of New Town, the evictees still had no idea where they would go. But they were luckier than some. Last year, a nearby trailer park was sold and its residents given 30 days to move. The tribe offered them a field about 10 miles away, but soon after they moved there, the lot buckled under sewer and water demands.  When the ground began to sink, families had to relocate again, even farther away from town.

“The tribe didn’t count on these disruptions,” Deschamp said, surveying the boarded trailers and junked cars left behind by neighbors. “I know I didn’t.”

What the tribe counted on when the boom hit two years ago was money.  It never had any to spare and the recession made things worse.  About 40 percent of the tribal workforce was unemployed and people were leaving the land where the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara have lived for more than a millennium. For a nation with only about 4,500 of its 13,000 enrolled members living on the rez, the wretched economy threatened the community’s very survival. Then Fort Berthold turned into a black gold mine.  

The reservation’s swath of prairie and pasturelands sits over the Bakken, the biggest sea of oil discovered in the United States in 40 years. Until a few years ago, the Bakken, which also stretches across parts of South Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan, was too deep to mine. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand deep underground to break apart shale and release gas, has given oil companies the means to have their way with the Bakken. And so they have.

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