A Weekend Walking and Talking Man Camps, Part 2

Yesterday, I summarized some of what I learned on my short research trip to the Bakken over the weekend with the North Dakota Man Camp Project and to participate in the first Man Camp Dialogue. In yesterday’s post, I offered six observations, but only managed three of them before straying into the tl;dr zone. 

So here are the next three:

4. Toxic Tourism. I’m getting increasingly interested in the idea of toxic tourism in the Bakken. Toxic tourism originated with the environmentalism movement of the 1970s and developed forms of tourism that emphasized tourism as a kind of activism by taking “tourists” to witness the human toll of toxic environments. Toxic tourism has tended to reveal the uneven distribution of toxic waste producers in the U.S. (and globally). They tend to cluster in and around economically disadvantaged, minority, and marginalized communities which do not have the political standing to challenge unscrupulous producers or the location and precautions associated with dangerous and toxic industries.

For North Dakota, the stories of toxic conditions have tended to focus on the relationship between oil producers and either the environment or pre-existing settlements in the Bakken counties. There is certainly cause for concern as lax state and federal oversight has set the stage for what will almost certainly be an environmental catastrophe on a regional scale. The dramatic views of large-scale clean up work at various pipeline leaks  

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At the same time, there has been far less concern expressed publicly about the relationship between environmental risks and the Bakken workforce (outside of justifiable concerns about injuries and deaths associated with the difficult and dangerous work on oil rigs). In general, toxic tourism demonstrates that proximity of toxic producers to homes and communities. In the Bakken, the blurring of the line between domestic space and the space of work in the Bakken likely exposes members of the workforce to toxic environments physically as well as socially as the well-maintained distinction between the messy work necessary to make the modern world and the domestic enclave collapses.      


Another aspect of toxic tourism in the Bakken is the legacy of earlier booms in the region. While we have not done anything to systematically document the remains of earlier booms, this trip we decided to stop and check out an abandoned well site Berge-FLB 24 which was spudded in 1981 and is now plugged and inactive, but still stands just off US Route 85 in the Rawson oil field. Many of the pumps and tanks from the 1980s oil boom have been removed for reuse or sold as scrap, but a few still dot the landscape as haunting reminders of one potential future.  


5. Man Camps and the Media. One of the boons of the “Man Camp Dialogues” has been a media attention. We appeared on the front page of the Bismarck Tribune and in the Dickinson Press, on several news broadcasts, and have continued to receive press inquiries. The genuine interest is gratifying, but it’s been a bit of a challenge to explain to the media the scope and character of our work. There seems to be a consistent interest in quantitative data: How many people live in workforce housing? Has this increased or decreased? 

These are legitimate questions, of course, and speak to both the concern for a workforce who is often left to live in sub-standard conditions as well as an effort to find data that speaks to the economy health of the oil patch and the North Dakota economy. Our work, however, focuses on qualitative data which provides our project with a more complex narrative than the quantitative arguments that the media expects. To be clear, this is not to suggest that quantitative data can’t reveal complex and nuanced stories, but the basic information that the media has tended to lead with is not what our project has collected. In most cases, media members have been incredibly patient with us and let us tell our story with all of its indeterminacy and ambiguity. For our part, we keep trying to find new ways to explain what it is that we’re doing and what we’ve learned, and keeping it focused enough to appear in a <1000 newspaper article or a <5 minute soundbite.

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6. Man Camp Dialogues. Lately, Richard Rothaus and I have talked a bit about an “archaeology of care” (listen to Richard muse about it in our podcast a couple of weeks ago). An archaeology of care involves our being present and listening and observing which communicates to communities an interest in their lives and their challenges and offers them a kind of affirmation that their experiences are worthy of study and remembering. 

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Our engagement with members of the Killdeer community was particularly rewarding as the community was willing to share their impressions of life as neighbors to workforce housing sites. The most interesting comments involved dismay that some communities have resisted the construction of workforce housing in their midst and genuine questions why this might be the case. A few talked about the challenges faced at schools which have to constantly adapt to the ebb and flow of students who follow their parents to the Bakken. Others offered some challenges to our argument for the possibility of workforce housing sites becoming new, long-term settlements in the Bakken observing that conditional zoning laws will make it difficult for these communities to persist after the boom abates. The willingness of this community to discuss openly the opportunities and challenges that they face during the Bakken Boom revealed a sensitive, intelligent, and sophisticated approach to understanding the workforce housing situation. More than that, they ran strongly counter to the oft-repeated stereotype of North Dakota communities being hostile, unwelcoming, or even distrustful of the influx of outsiders arrived to work long hours in the oil patch.  

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