Climate

Crime In North Dakota’s Oil Boom Towns Is So Bad That The FBI Is Stepping In

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Workers tend to oil pump jacks behind a natural gas flare, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, near Watford City, N.D.

High levels of crime in North Dakota’s oil fields have prompted the FBI to set up shop in the region.

The FBI is opening an office in Williston, North Dakota and plans to have it fully staffed by later this year, The Hill reported Thursday. The FBI office — which will be North Dakota’s fifth — comes in response to North Dakota lawmakers’ and local officials’ calls for the FBI to step up its presence in North Dakota’s oil fields, which have seen a surge in criminal activity since the state’s oil boom began.

“The opening of this office is in response to the unprecedented growth in population and economic activity associated with the oil exploration and production in the Bakken region and the corresponding increase in criminal activity,” Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI division, which will oversee the Williston office, said in a statement. “The FBI will be in a better position to effectively address these issues in this region of North Dakota through this new office.”

North Dakota’s oil production began growing in the mid-2000s, when companies figured out how to extract oil from the state’s Bakken region. Around 2010, production in the state skyrocketed, and that boom brought in throngs of workers from around the county — a population increase that, as Thornton said, also brought with it an increase in crime. According to the Washington Post, violent crime in the state’s oil-rich Williston Basin region increased by 121 percent between 2005 and 2011. Drug use and prostitution are also prevalent.

“It’s not Mayberry anymore,” North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon told the AP earlier this year. “Our police and prosecutors are going to have to adapt to keep pace. We have organized criminal gangs selling drugs, sex trafficking, and out-of-state flim-flam men coming in. And the cases have become more and more complicated.”

One town in North Dakota — Watford City — has grown its police force from just four policemen in 2010 to 19 this year. The town experienced just 41 calls for police service in 2006, while in 2014, it experienced 7,414.

“There used to be a saying that 40 below keeps out the riff-raff,” said Steve Kukowski, a sheriff in Ward County, North Dakota. “That’s not true anymore.”

Lawmakers from North Dakota, including Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) and Sen. John Hoeven (R) praised the FBI’s announcement.

Along with drug-related and violent crime, North Dakota’s oil boom has also brought with it crime related directly to oil infrastructure. Last year, police found a huge stockpile of illegally dumped radioactive oil socks — nets that are used in the oil production process — in an abandoned North Dakota gas station. Some oil and wastewater spills, which have been on the rise since the boom, have also been suspected to have been caused by criminal activity. Oil company Hess Corp. said in February that it suspected two large wastewater spills that month could have been caused by vandalism.

Spills, even those not related to criminal activity, are a problem of their own in the state. According to a review by the New York Times, North Dakota experienced one environmental incident per every six wells in 2013, compared to one for every 11 wells in 2006. The Times also found that, through early October of 2014, oil companies in the state reported spilling 3.8 gallons of oil and drilling-related liquids, which is nearly the same amount released in 2011 and 2012 combined.

Just this week, 19,000 gallons of saltwater, a byproduct of oil production, leaked from a pipeline in North Dakota. The incident occurred a little over a month after nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater leaked from a North Dakota pipeline near Williston. That incident is being called the largest in the state since the oil boom began.

The brine that leaks from the pipelines isn’t your average saltwater. It’s up to eight times saltier than seawater, making it lethal to vegetation that comes in contact with it, and can contain heavy metals and even radioactive material. Brine spills can also contaminate soil and are hard to clean up.