On the job


Man camps Oil workers live in trailer parks, like this one near Watford City, ND. (Ben Garvin)

Independent radio producer Todd Melby lives more than 600 miles from his wife and kids in a basement in western North Dakota. It’s such a desolate area, he says, that “some East Coast intellectuals once suggested turning it back to the buffalo.” Yet Melby has managed to document some of the most meaningful stories of his career here, thanks to a recent oil boom that’s drawn thousands of job seekers from across the country.

North Dakota’s Bakken Shale became a magnet for oil production after engineers first used horizontal drilling techniques there in 2007. Almost overnight, access to huge untapped oil reserves fueled tens of thousands of new jobs on the patch. So-called man camps—rows of white trailers, most without water or electricity—rose up around the fields to house new workers. The number of people employed in North Dakota’s oil industry has more than tripled since 2007. The population in the state’s oil-producing western region is expected to jump by 50 percent in the next 20 years.

Melby is telling the stories of these workers, and the locals adapting to the new industry, for a public-radio project called “Black Gold Boom: How Oil Changed North Dakota.” “This is about individual narratives,” he says, “what people hate or love about the boom.” The heart of the project is the audio portraits of people, some of whom Melby discovered while driving his red Ford Escape along Highway 85.

That’s where he met food-truck owner Adell Hackworth, parked on 85’s long stretch of road between Williston and Watford City, two of the main hubs of North Dakota oil production. She says all the men who stop at her truck tell her the same story about leaving their previous lives behind to start over in oil country. Highway 85, Hackworth says, is “going to be called the ‘Highway of Hope.’‚ÄČ”

But the promise of a quick fortune on the oil patch is far from reality for many workers. Domanick David moved from Minnesota to the Bakken with two friends. As the weeks dragged on, none had jobs, and David’s bank balance was in the double digits. “Nobody wanted to hire anybody with no experience,” he says.

For Melby, one of the best things about the project is getting stories of working people on national radio. “It’s a huge treat hearing the voice of Bobcat John on Marketplace,” he says, referring to a burly North Dakota knife salesman who once owned a declawed bobcat as a pet. “Black Gold Boom” stories also have aired on Prairie Public, NPR’s All Things Considered, and WUNC’s The Story. With his funding from The Association of Independents in Radio running out, Melby recently secured a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to continue the project. He’s also finishing proposals for a television documentary based on the stories. “The rest of America is hearing these voices for the first time,” Melby says proudly. “It’s a blast.”

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Joe Hernandez is a CJR intern