Group launches Bakken Field Tours

WILLISTON, N.D. – For people who drive through North Dakota’s oil country and wonder what the heck they’re looking at, a new tour will erase some of the mystery.

The Bakken Field Tours, which launch in July, will give people a chance to take an 11-hour bus tour through the Oil Patch that features an explanation of oil and gas development.

The night prior to the tour, participants will get a three-hour educational workshop that lays the groundwork for what they’ll see on the tour.

“It’s going to open a world that we don’t get to see every day,” said Amber Bertsch, a Williston native who will lead the tours.

The tours are organized by DAWA Solutions Group, a Williston communication and small-business development firm that sponsored the Bakken Investor Conference and the Bakken Housing Summit.

During those events, people looking at business opportunities in North Dakota asked about taking oilfield tours to learn more about the Bakken, said Jeff Zarling, the group’s president.

The tours are geared for investors, developers and community leaders who are interested in learning about oil development, but they also may appeal to tourists and members of the public, Zarling said.

The tour will cover energy development activities, oil and gas infrastructure, commercial and residential construction, economic development activities, community and infrastructure impacts and a crew camp tour and meal.

Participants will not get to tour a drilling rig, but the tour will stop near one and the guide will describe the process they’re seeing.

“There’s just too many issues with liability and logistics,” Zarling said of a rig tour.

The workshop will cover how hydraulic fracturing works, but that won’t be included on the tour.

Participants on the tour will get to see crude-oil loading terminals, and they will get the benefit of having someone explain workover rigs, salt water disposal wells and other aspects of oil and gas development.

“You get that interpretation as you’re seeing the activity so you know exactly what’s going on,” Zarling said.

People often call the state’s Tourism Division to ask about Bakken tours, said Kim Schmidt, public and media relations manager.

This is the first tour tourism officials have been able to refer people to, and Schmidt expects there will be interest from tourists.

“I believe this tour is an opportunity for people to actually go out and see what it’s all about,” Schmidt said.

The cost of the tours is $325, not including the price of a hotel room. Rooms have been reserved in advance.

The tours start in either Williston or Minot, with the first one scheduled July 27-28 from Williston and the second one 31-Aug. 1 from Minot.

Tours are scheduled through September, and more could be added if there is strong interest, Zarling said. For complete itineraries and to register, visit

Williston walk-in clinic closes

WILLISTON, N.D. – Mercy Medical Center has closed its walk-in clinic, in part due to a lack of staffing.

Trina Bressler, vice president of outpatient and clinic services, said it was becoming difficult to recruit enough staff for the Express Care Clinic, which was closed last Saturday.

Officials also decided to close the clinic because it wasn’t accommodating patients who needed care in the evenings, Bressler said.

Although the clinic aimed to serve patients after regular business hours, so many patients arrived during the afternoons they would fill up the evening appointments.

“There’d be patients waiting for us to open,” Bressler said.

An average of 90 patients a week used the clinic.

Mercy is developing a new model for its emergency department that will help serve those patients, but Bressler said officials aren’t ready to announce those details.

In the meantime, patients with emergent needs will be referred to the emergency room and others will be referred to the traditional clinic.

The emergency room is staffed by one physician, but Mercy has added two nurse practitioners in the ER to help meet the demand, Bressler said. A typical wait time in the ER ranges from 45 minutes to several hours, said Leslie Sullivan, marketing and communications manager.

Mercy recently added an occupational health physician who will be able to accommodate some of the patients who formerly used the Express Care Clinic, Bressler said. Mercy also is recruiting doctors for the traditional clinic.

Mercy CEO Matt Grimshaw said in a recent interview that it may take weeks for someone who is not an established patient to get an appointment at the clinic, and that open slots for the clinic are often filled by 10 a.m. each day.

Fairlight Medical Center, which has operated a walk-in clinic in Williston since 2007, has seen steady growth in patient numbers and often operated near or at capacity before Mercy closed its clinic, said Dr. Leszek Jaszczak, the clinic’s owner.

“As with other clinics, adequate staffing is very challenging and we continue to recruit qualified staff,” Jaszczak said.

In a separate announcement Thursday, Mercy representatives said three registered nurses have been hired to launch a nurse triage program.

The nurses will take calls during business hours and use their expertise, the patient’s medical history and doctor consultations to assist the patient, said Melanie Krabseth, nurse manager. In cases of acute need, the nurses may be able to get a patient in to see a doctor that same day.

“We’re getting such an influx of people in this town, so we wanted to have better access for our patients,” Krabseth said.

Overflowing with RVs, Williston says enough

WILLISTON, N.D. — People living in campers in Williston will have to get rolling, but they have a few months to find a new place to park.

The Williston City Commission unanimously approved Tuesday night an ordinance that makes it illegal to live in an RV outside of a designated RV park.

Campers in residential areas will have to relocate by Sept. 1 and RVs in commercial or industrial areas will have until Nov. 1.

The penalty for violating the ordinance is a $500 fine for each day of noncompliance.

Commissioners have said the hundreds of RVs around the city create health and safety hazards. In previous meetings, they have cited cases of people urinating outside their campers, inappropriately dumping waste and illegally hooking up to utilities.

Several RV parks in the Williston area are under construction, but what they will charge for rent is unclear. Mayor Ward Koeser said he’s heard rent may be $750 to $800 per month.

Paul Miller, who lives in an RV parked in a church driveway, said the rent is too steep for service workers like him and he expects many will leave town.

“I’ve come to say goodbye to the city if this law passes,” Miller said.

He told commissioners he wishes the city would have charged campers a weekly or monthly fee until the RV park rates came down to a reasonable amount.

Miller, who said his employer didn’t want him to say publicly where he works, plans to continue working in Williston this summer and move to Montana before Sept. 1.

He predicts that lines in restaurants and other businesses will only get longer as a result of the ordinance.

“It’s going to hurt this city of Williston,” Miller said.

Koeser said he’s received public comments on both sides of the RV ban, but an increasing number of comments have been concerns and frustrations about the RVs.

“I needed to protect our residents who have lived here, who pay taxes here,” said Koeser, who said approving the ordinance was difficult for commissioners. “I need to protect the quality of life I think they deserve.”

Many of the construction workers building Williston’s permanent housing live in RVs at work sites.

The ordinance allows building contractors to apply for $200 monthly RV permits to accommodate those workers. That will be reevaluated in a year.

The ordinance does not affect people living in cars or vehicles.

Williston Police Chief James Lokken said the department will determine how to enforce the ordinance. Officers may initially give out warnings.

“It’s going to be tough,” Lokken said. “We’re just hoping people will move on their own.”

Many oil companies give back to North Dakota

WILLISTON, N.D. – As oil companies increase their presence in North Dakota, many are finding more ways to give back to local communities.

For Marathon Oil, getting involved locally and supporting the community with donations is a priority, said Terry Kovacevich, Bakken asset team manager.

“We’re all trying to encourage each other to make sure we participate in the communities that we live and operate in,” Kovacevich said.

Marathon is the lead contributor to the Housing Incentive Fund, with a $2.5 million contribution, and has pledged $1 million toward St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center in Dickinson.

“We felt the hospital was one big way for Marathon to show leadership in giving back to the community,” Kovacevich said.

Halliburton presented a $25,000 check last week to Mercy Medical Center in Williston, the second contribution of that size to the facility.

“It’s nice for us to give back to the communities where we work,” said Brent Eslinger, senior manager of Halliburton’s Williston district.

Matt Grimshaw, CEO of Mercy Medical Center, said Halliburton has been the largest supporter so far, and he’s in conversations with other companies about contributing.

“We find them to be very receptive. They believe they need to be good community members,” Grimshaw said. “We can’t do this alone.”

It’s not just oil companies that are donating money – contributions also come from companies that support the oil industry.

Target Logistics, the largest provider of temporary crew camp housing, has given several donations, including $17,000 toward the Williston Police Department toward its first K-9 unit, $5,000 to Olympic swimming hopeful Carissa Gormally and a $2,500 scholarship for the Miss North Dakota pageant. The organization also provides food for community events and invited the public to Bear Paw Lodge for a Memorial Day barbecue.

Target Logistics also announced it was giving $55,000 to the Williams County Sheriff’s Office to purchase cameras for squad cars.

But with that donation, Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil said officials didn’t feel comfortable accepting the gift because the county would be considering planning and zoning requests from the Target Logistics crew camps.

The $55,000 is still earmarked for the community and will be presented at a later time, according to a company press release.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council is surveying its members to gauge how much the companies have contributed to the community.

Some examples include a $25 million donation from Hess to support education, about $4 million from companies toward Minot flood recovery, and between $4 million and $5 million for the North Dakota Heritage Center, said Ron Ness, council president.

“I think the numbers are going to be pretty big over the past three years here,” Ness said. “We’re very proud of what they’re doing.”

Companies also are giving their time by volunteering for cleanup efforts and other projects. For example, SM Energy has logged 360 volunteer hours, according to the Petroleum Council.

Ness said he expects the community support will continue to increase.

“As companies get their foothold and they figure out where their operations are, then they get more engaged in the local communities,” Ness said.

Faces of the Boom: 1980s bust influences Williston hotel owners to remain cautious

Ardean Aafedt and his business partners bought The El Rancho Hotel in Williston during the mid-1980s and saw dramatic effects from the oil bust. Now his daughter, Cyndy Aafedt, is majority owner of the hotel as it faces new challenges related to the oil boom.

WILLISTON, N.D. – With an oil boom driving 100 percent occupancy rates at The El Rancho Hotel and a restaurant that is always packed, many business owners would have expanded or built new hotels.

Not Cyndy Aafedt.

The majority owner of the Williston hotel said she’s influenced by her father, Ardean Aafedt, who was an owner of The El Rancho when oil prices dropped in the mid-1980s.

“If you’re from Williston and you lived through the bust or if a close family member did, you approach everything differently,” said Cyndy, 50.

Ardean, who is now retired but continues to be a minority owner of The El Rancho, said business at the hotel, restaurant, lounge and coffee shop dropped about 30 percent during the bust.

“It was just like you closed the doors a third of the way,” Ardean said. “It stayed that way for many months.”

To get through it, the partners had to lay off about 20 percent of the staff, invest some of their own money and get an arrangement with the bank that allowed them to only pay interest on their loan.

Gradually business improved, but Ardean watched many other businesses go broke.

“Some people never survived. They just went under,” said Ardean, 80, who splits his time between Arizona and North Dakota.

Now oil activity has brought so much business to The El Rancho that calls for reservations have overwhelmed the hotel’s phone system.

And along with the surge in business has come an entirely different set of challenges for Cyndy and her business partner, Howard Klug.

Cyndy recalls struggling to find enough service industry employees as long as eight years ago, when many waitresses and housekeepers who had spent their careers working in the industry retired.

Competition with the oil industry made it even more difficult to find workers. The hotel employs many international workers on six-month visas in order to have enough staff. Recently, the coffee shop had to close early for a few weeks because a new set of workers hadn’t arrived yet.

Until about a year ago, Cyndy continued to make it a priority to rent rooms to the traveling public rather than contract with oil companies for employee housing, as many of the Williston hotels do.

But that could mean 60 check-outs a day for the 92-room hotel, and staffing that level of activity was burning people out.

“I don’t know if we’d be standing if we had kept that pace up,” Cyndy said.

So she decided to contract with an oil company for 95 percent of the rooms, a decision she calls the most difficult business decision she’s made.

“I felt like a failure when I did it,” Cyndy said.

But that arrangement means staff can rotate the housekeeping schedule and only deal with one person making reservations for the bulk of the rooms.

The hotel is still able to accommodate other guests for special events or weekends and can find rooms for people who need to attend a funeral or visit someone in the hospital, Cyndy said.

“I feel like in a way we’re helping the community more than we were a year ago,” she said.

The hotel charges about $120 a night, which is lower than many Williston hotels. Some have told Cyndy she could charge as much as $250 a night and still have full occupancy, but she’s resisted raising the rates.

“You’ve got to be able to look in the mirror in the morning. You got to have some integrity, too,” Cyndy said. “Maybe I’m a bad business person.”

Sometimes Cyndy regrets that she didn’t buy land for a new hotel or start another business venture, but she said she’s decided to be content with the high occupancy and being able to charge $120 a night when her father once saw 30 percent occupancy and $23 a night rates.

Ardean said even though he sees signs that this oil activity will be long-term, he will continue to be cautious.

“I’ve always operated more conservatively,” Ardean said. “I caution my family to think about and prepare for things that might be more difficult in the future. It’s hard to think that something that’s got the momentum that this has could ever stop.”

Even though Ardean continues to be cautious, he sees signs that this is not like the boom he experienced in the 1980s.

“It sure looks like they’re preparing for a long-term and increasing supply of oil,” Ardean said.

I’ve (finally) got mail in the Oil Patch


This was one of the longest lines at the Williston post office I’ve seen. It’s not unusual for the line to be out the door.

WILLISTON, N.D. – This is an exciting week for me. I have home mail delivery for the first time in four months.

Most people who move to Williston struggle with mail delivery because they don’t have a mailbox. If you live in an RV, as hundreds of families do, your only choice is to try to rent a post office box. But as long as I’ve lived here, there haven’t been any PO boxes available in Williston.

I’m one of the lucky people who actually has a mailbox. But the block of mailboxes in our apartment building was missing a certain kind of lock the postal service needed before carriers could deliver our mail.

So since I moved here in February, our mail has been held at the post office for us to pick up. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but getting our mail became a chore. Waiting in line could take as much as 20 to 30 minutes. And that’s after you find a place to park. (I’m guessing the police don’t enforce the 10-minute parking on the street outside.) With the volume of mail the post office keeps track of, our mail was drenched in coffee once and delayed a few times because it was placed in the wrong area.

The only time it really inconvenienced us was Mother’s Day. My mom visited Williston that weekend so I suggested that my sister mail her card to me so I could give it to Mom with the gift we purchased together. Bad idea. Our mail was missing for two days and they didn’t find it until the following week after my mom had left.

I don’t fault the local post office for the hassle. I’m told the district post office sent the wrong locks two different times. The postal clerks, who are amazingly friendly and patient, were just as frustrated as we were. And I felt bad thinking about those poor carriers who carried our mail around with them every day, just to bring it back to the post office.

Now that the correct lock is installed we are getting mail delivered right downstairs, a luxury I won’t soon take for granted. We even have secure mailboxes for receiving packages, so I may never have to wait in that post office line again. And now that line is a little shorter for everyone else.

Spotted: ‘Trucker bomb’ in downtown Fargo

Spotted: What appears to be a “trucker bomb” was in a downtown Fargo parking lot Monday night.

The Oil Patch has become notorious for so-called trucker bombs – the pee-filled pop bottles discarded by truck drivers alongside highways. 

But I’ve lived in Williston since February and I still haven’t seen one. I once asked a truck driver about them and he told me I must not be looking hard enough. So I guess they’re out there. But I’ve actually been in ditches outside Williston and Watford City interviewing people picking up trash and I still haven’t come across one.

So I found it quite amusing on Monday night when my husband spotted what appeared to be a trucker bomb – but we were in downtown Fargo, not the Oil Patch. My photo isn’t the best – I guess I didn’t want to get too close. But it looked like a water bottle filled with a yellow liquid in a downtown parking lot.

In all fairness to truckers, it likely did not come from one of them since it was downtown. Perhaps it was a bar-hopper bomb?

Faces of the Boom: ‘Decal Guy’ does strong business from Williston

Graphic designer Mark Hopkins of Bend, Ore., travels around the country each summer selling car decals and other items. He’s doing good business parked along the highway just outside of Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications Co.

WILLISTON, N.D. – Looking for a hard-hat decal? How about a drilling rig sticker for your pickup? Mark Hopkins is your guy.

The graphic designer from Bend, Ore., known as the Decal Guy, is set up just outside of Williston’s city limits selling car decals and other graphics from his custom trailer.

Hopkins owns two sign shops but takes his design shop on the road during the summer months.

He added Williston to his route last year, and he’s finding oil field workers to be good customers. The amount of business Hopkins does from Williston is similar to what he sees in Las Vegas.

“I could probably sit here all year,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins sells a lot of oil field-related decals with sayings such as “I love my oil man,” “Don’t tell my parents I’m a roughneck,” “Oilfield trash and proud of it” and many others not fit for a family newspaper.

He has 3,400 decals displayed on his trailer, 3 million in a catalog that customers can look through, plus another catalog with 6 million decals that he doesn’t display or customers would be there all day.

Eric Roepke of Crookston, Minn., who hauls water for the oil industry, stopped by last week to purchase oil-related decals for his pickup. He chose decals with a pump jack.

“It seemed better than the naked lady. That’s an overdone cliché,” Roepke said.

Hard-hat decals are among the most popular items in North Dakota, Hopkins said.

But an even bigger portion of what he does from Williston is design advertising for new businesses, such as semi decals, custom shirts and embroidered hats.

“It’s not just selling decals,” Hopkins said. “You’ve got to be good with computers, graphics.”

Mark Hopkins, left, sells oilfield decals to truck driver Eric Roepke of Crookston, Minn., who was looking for a pump jack decal for his pickup.


Oil Patch health providers try new things to meet increased demand

WILLISTON, N.D. – If you’re not an established patient at Williston’s Mercy Medical Center, it can take weeks to get an appointment for an acute need.

The clinic starts each day with open slots on the schedule for current patients who need to get in, but those usually are filled by 10 a.m., said CEO Matt Grimshaw.

The medical provider is rapidly changing to meet the demands of the population growth driven by oil development, but the lack of affordable housing and available day care is making it tough to fill staff shortages.

Grimshaw said there is enough demand for 10 new physicians right now.

“We simply can’t hire them fast enough,” Grimshaw said. “We have highly qualified applicants from all across the country who are willing to pick up and move to Williston, N.D., for the opportunities here, but the lack of available reasonably priced housing is a huge barrier.”

A group of western North Dakota health care officials meet monthly to share best practices and discuss potential solutions.

“As the business of health care has changed with this significant influx of population, we have to change our business practices,” said Dan Kelly, CEO of McKenzie County Healthcare Systems in Watford City, who leads the group.

Among the changes McKenzie County Healthcare Systems has implemented to recruit more physicians is to partner with St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck. The arrangement would have doctors work three weeks in Watford City and one week in Bismarck so they would have the camaraderie and access to resources of a larger facility, Kelly said.

While McKenzie County hasn’t yet signed a new doctor with that arrangement, it seems to have potential.

“It does seem to be bringing about a heightened interest in Watford City,” Kelly said.

A challenge for many of the oil-impacted communities is responding to an increase in volume and severity of trauma cases, many traffic-related.

McKenzie County recently began using technology in the emergency room that allows doctors to push a button and be immediately connected to emergency room physicians in Sioux Falls, S.D., who can provide guidance or get consultations from specialists.

That is particularly helpful when the ER is handling multiple trauma cases at once, which is happening more often, Kelly said.

In Williston, Mercy Medical Center is in the midst of a $30 million expansion, which includes tripling the size of its emergency room and adding a new birthing center. Mercy expects to break ground soon on a cancer center that would open next year.

“We are likely the fastest-growing hospital in the country at this point,” Grimshaw said.

One new approach Williston is implementing is to offer out-patient births in its new center for mothers who have no complications. It will be the first out-patient birthing program in the state, Grimshaw said.

About 300 babies were born each year in Williston before the recent boom in oil activity brought thousands of jobs and new residents to the region. Next year, 800 births are projected Willistion, he said.

Mercy Medical also has recently recruited an occupational health specialist and is adding a pain management specialist, Grimshaw said.

Also Minot-based Trinity Health is constructing a new clinic in Williston that will consolidate its services into one location and provide additional space. The 60,000-squre-foot facility, expected to open by this fall, will have space for seven physicians, three opthamologists and five optometrists.

In Dickinson, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Care Center –which, like Mercy, is part of Catholic Health Initiatives – has seen some similar challenges, but is unique compared to some of the other oil-impacted communities, said CEO Reed Reyman.

St. Joseph’s was not operating at peak capacity before the oil activity and had infrastructure in place to accommodate new patients, Reyman said.

Leaders in Dickinson also were able to watch some of the changes happening in Williston, Watford City and other areas and be more prepared, he said.

Plans St. Joseph’s had in place for future expansions were accelerated to meet the needs, Reyman said.

St. Joseph’s has seen turnover, but the provider has been able to fill those positions more quickly, he said.

“We’re a lot different in so many ways,” Reyman said.

As the group of health care leaders continues to meet, they’ll begin talking more about proposals to bring to the Legislature in areas the state may be able to help, Kelly said.

In the meantime, they’re looking for new and creative ways to meet what they consider the “new normal,” he said.

“We’ve got to continue to look outside the box,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to try new things to keep our doors open.”

Pipelines promoted as alternative to trucking, flaring

WILLISTON, N.D. – Gov. Jack Dalrymple had a simple message Thursday for representatives from the pipeline industry: “As far as we’re concerned in North Dakota, you can’t go too fast.”

More than 100 industry leaders and others gathered in Bismarck for a summit on pipeline development, which Dalrymple and other state officials say is key to taking trucks off the roads, reducing flaring of natural gas and providing more cost-effective routes to market.

“There is no single thing that I can think of that can do more to reduce the human impacts of rapid oil development than pipelines,” Dalrymple said.

North Dakota’s pipeline capacity would transport more than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2015 if all of the proposed interstate projects move forward, Dalrymple said.

The state’s oil production is projected to hit 1 million barrels of oil per day in three to five years, Dalrymple said. The large, interstate pipeline projects also would transport Williston Basin oil pumped from in Canada, Montana and South Dakota.

“We are on track to have our state’s production actually handled by pipeline,” Dalrymple said.

Tad True, vice president of Bridger/Belle Fourche Pipelines, said pipelines are significantly reducing the length of truck hauls.

For example, the 77-mile Four Bears Pipeline that starts near New Town, N.D., eliminates the need for 50,000 truck miles each day on Highways 22 and 85, True said.

Pipeline transportation also is safer than rail or truck and has lower spill rates, said Alex Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines for TransCanada.

Dalrymple said he’s glad to see pipelines and natural gas gathering systems reducing the need for flaring, but the challenge is keeping up with the pace of drilling.  Natural gas is flared, or burned off, at a drilling site when there is no way to capture gas that escapes from a pumping oil well.

The North Dakota Pipeline Authority is studying natural gas production with a report due in July.

Mike McGonagill, senior vice president for Alliance Pipeline, emphasized his company’s commitment to safety, the land and local communities.

Alliance is working with North Dakota State University on a native prairie reclamation effort, he said.

“We do want to work very hard to mitigate the impacts that we have on land,” McGonagill said.

Gene Veeder, director of McKenzie County Economic Development, said five or 10 year ago, landowners who were approached about securing the right-of-way for a pipeline project were concerned primarily about money.

Today, more landowners are concerned about what the pipeline is transporting, what happens if there’s a spill and the long-term effects on the land, said Veeder, who owns a ranch near Watford City, N.D.

Veeder encouraged industry officials to work in cooperation with landowners and to be cautious about the construction companies they hire because one bad player affects other pipeline development.

Overall, Veeder said the message he’s sharing with the public is to embrace pipelines.

“If you don’t like flares, you have to like pipelines. If you don’t like trucks, you have to like pipelines,” Veeder said.