Push for planning, permits help emergency crews find camps in North Dakota's booming oil patch

BISMARCK, N.D. – When workers began spilling into western North Dakota for high-paying oil jobs and nowhere to live, they set their eyes on the unregulated prairie of the state’s largest oil-producing county — quickly turning it into a mass of trailer parks and scattered RVs.

Crew camps were set up haphazardly along unnamed roads across McKenzie County thanks to its lack of zoning rules for housing. Thousands of people had no address.

“Before, we just had ‘hillbilly addressing,'” said Jerry Samuelson, the county’s emergency manager. ‘”Go down to a farmer’s mailbox and turn right.’ That was when everybody knew everybody.”

But Samuelson and other local officials saw a big problem: How do they keep track of everyone? The population was booming so fast that no one knew how many people were in McKenzie County, so despite opposition from longtime residents — who were loath to any regulation — local officials pushed through ordinances.

Those rules are now being credited in part in helping emergency workers respond when a workers camp was hit by only the 14th tornado to sweep through the county in 65 years. The Memorial Day storm injured nine people and destroyed 15 trailers, but no one was killed, and emergency crews knew the camp’s location.

The new rules require that “man camps,” temporary housing complexes for oilfield workers, and RV parks obtain permits and addresses, enabling 911 dispatchers to pinpoint where people are temporarily living. Officials also decided not to kick people off land for not having a permit, knowing they would set up somewhere else, but rather work to get them the right paperwork.

Samuelson noted locals weren’t keen to permits: “If you wanted to put a pig farm next someone else’s farm, you could do it.” But after the storm, he said, they may be rethinking their position.

“We used to be rural,” he said. “We aren’t any more.”

McKenzie County’s population was pegged last year at about 9,300 people, nearly double from a decade earlier and the highest since 1930. North Dakota is now the nation’s second top oil-producing state, behind only Texas, and McKenzie County alone accounts for a third of the state’s oil output.

“McKenzie County, with no planning and zoning, was kind of a free-for-all,” said Kenan Bullinger, the director of the state Health Department division that regulates temporary housing. “I think they do have a handle on it now.”

Bullinger said more than a quarter of the 404 licensed recreational vehicle parks and campgrounds in North Dakota are located in the three biggest oil counties — McKenzie, Mountrail and Williams — though McKenzie County has the most at 62. Most have sprung up in the past few years, he said.

Mountrail County’s zoning laws, in place since 1982, have been crucial in monitoring the area’s 47 temporary housing facilities, said Donald Longmuir, the county’s zoning administrator and emergency co-ordinator.

“None of these probably were in existence five years ago,” Longmuir said.

Longmuir also noted that the county has issued about 20 cease-and-desist orders to illegal housing in the past few years. The county has hired a person to “seek out commando camps, so to speak,” he said.

His county, like McKenzie County, shares permit information with local law enforcement.

“It’s very valuable to be able to dispatch deputies, or an ambulance to the right place,” he said. “If someone calls and says so-and-so is having a heart attack at a man camp, we should be able to find them.”