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North Dakota's Oil Boom Strains Its Infrastructure

A glut of workers is swamping the state’s small towns

The gravel road that runs in front of Dave Hynek’s farm in Mountrail County, N.D., was designed to carry 10 tractor-trailers a day—more than enough to haul the wheat and flax his family has grown on the 1,400-acre property for four generations. These days, Hynek has to fight to get out of his driveway. In a recent 24-hour period, local officials counted 800 trucks rumbling by, most carting goods related to the oil drilling in the Bakken shale formation, which runs from Canada through North Dakota and Montana, and directly beneath his land. “It’s absolutely destroying our infrastructure,” says Hynek, who’s also a county commissioner. “A few years ago our board set a goal that Mountrail County would be a better place to live and work as this oil play works itself out over the next 30 years. Right now, I would be hard-pressed to find people who agree.”

North Dakota has the kind of homegrown energy economy President Barack Obama promoted in the State of the Union last month. It claims the nation’s lowest unemployment rate—3.3 percent in December—and since mid-2009 its economy has grown at a rate of 11.3 percent a year, more than any other state’s. Multiplying oil rigs have attracted droves of job seekers looking for big paychecks. But the boom is also testing the patience of longtime residents. They complain the thousands of new workers are driving up costs on gas and groceries and pushing roads, schools, and water systems to the breaking point. Says Republican State Representative Vicky Steiner: “It’s almost an unmanageable population explosion.”