Faces of the Boom: Energy boom keeps operating room’s chief nurse hopping

Operating room manager Sue Erling supervises a team of nearly a dozen staff at busy Mercy Medical Center in Williston, N.D., Aug. 6, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — The day that Sue Erling arrived in Williston in September 2010, she was surrounded by trucks.

No longer the sleepy outpost she remembered as a young girl, the native North Dakotan was fresh off a year working as a nurse in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ready to meet the challenges at Mercy Medical Center.

The first seven years of Erling’s nursing career were spent on the neuroscience floor of what’s now known as Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck. But then the operating room called, and the money was especially enticing for a single mom.

“There weren’t a lot of financial opportunities in neuroscience. In the OR, I could make a little more money,” she said. “Neuroscience wasn’t fun anymore, same old thing.”

Erling said it took her nine months to learn how to be an OR nurse — from heart to head — and she didn’t realize what she was getting into. In time, she learned the key difference between the two specialties: In the OR, one patient is the sole focus vs. six to eight for a floor nurse.

Now, she oversees both the outpatient or day surgery and the main operating room.

Four operating rooms can be run at one time with two to three staff each, and Erling said she can scrub in “if a surgeon needs help or we’re short.”

“The integrity of the OR has got to be maintained. We have an extremely low infection rate. We have to be on guard for any break in sterility because that’s the best thing for the patient,” she said.

Cindy Hansen, a native of Wildrose, N.D., works as a nurse in the ambulatory care center. In her 14 years in the OR and nearly three decades at Mercy, she has seen the hospital weather one of the region’s most tumultuous periods with the energy boom.

In 2011, Mercy had eight surgeons. Three years later, the number has climbed to 13 with the recent addition of a plastic surgeon.

Erling’s flexibility and ability to listen, Hansen said, have made a real difference.

“She brings a level of compassion for our work environment. … We loved when she came; we were in a crisis. She’s really stepped up,” Hansen said.

The hospital also has seen the number of babies delivered by cesarean section nearly double in the past three years. It is projecting to set a new record of births in fiscal year 2015, which ends June 30, marketing manager Dubi Cummings said. Birth rates are high in comparison to other critical access hospitals.

“We have walk-ins (pregnant women) who come to see their husbands, or are in the area, and go into labor on a monthly basis,” Erling said.

She credits vice president of nursing Lori Hahn for encouraging her to join the Mercy team. Hahn’s mentoring is a big reason why Erling has made her home in Williston, and for that, Hahn said she’s grateful.

“We’re so very blessed to have her, and she’s so receptive to learn leadership,” Hahn said.

Faces of the Boom: Female trucker proves herself in the Bakken

Tasha Tarrell won’t back down from a challenge. The Nuverra Environmental Solutions trucker is one of six female semi drivers for the company, and she says any woman can do it too if she wants. Katherine Lymn/Dickinson Press

By Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. — Tasha Tarrell wants women in boomtowns to know there’s more than McDonald’s or Walmart for work. The oilfield is their oyster.

As one of six female truck drivers at Nuverra Environmental Solutions, Tarrell has proven herself and has grown to love her job along the way.

“She’s a great employee. She works harder than a lot of the guys here too,” dispatcher Tony Swanson said. “She’s always there when we need her to get the job done.”

She works a rotation of six days on with one off, then five on with two off. She leaves the yard earlier than most each morning — by 3:30 a.m. — to avoid the dangerous traffic on Highway 22.

She’s lived in southwest North Dakota for more than 20 years — formerly in Mott and now just south of Dickinson — and used to haul grain, but that got old, she said.

About five years ago, as the boom was hitting its stride, Tarrell took a job driving a truck for Nuverra, then Power Fuels.

She now hauls saltwater at wells around the Killdeer Mountains.

“I’ve been driving truck pretty much for as long as I could drive,” Tarrell said. “… Hauling grain got kinda monotonous, with the grain dust. Just wanted to try something different.”

Tarrell is starting her sixth year with Nuverra.

She acknowledges that her thin frame — she’s only slightly heavier than the chains she puts on her tires — means she can’t always lift like the men she works with.

It’s not an obstacle for her, though.

“When I need help, all I have to do is ask,” Tarrell said.

As for being a woman in a male-dominated workforce — and region — it’s not like it used to be, she said.

“When I first started here, it was do or die. You either did your job and you did it well, or you didn’t make it,” Tarrell said.

“It took a while. You have to prove yourself, you do,” she added. “… Now it’s a little bit more relaxed, now everybody’s more receiving of women coming in. Back then, it was a little more like, ‘Oh, wait, maybe this is, maybe it isn’t.’ It was, it was tougher back then.”

At truck stops Tarrell used to get a little trouble, but set a tone quickly.

“I’m tiny but I’ve got a rule: Nobody jumps on my truck steps, and I enforce it,” she said. “… I had to be that way.”

And it worked.

“Actually, I’ve not had very many problems at all. A few, but they were handled,” she said with a laugh.

Five other women drive for Nuverra out of about 110 drivers at the company, based a couple of miles north of Dickinson on Highway 22.

And Tarrell wants other women to know they can do this, too.

“I’m just a normal girl, and I can do it,” she said. “There’s times I need help, but I want women to understand that. Look at me. I’m not big, I’m not burly, it doesn’t matter what I look like. But I can do it.”

They live south of town on their own little seven-acre zoo, with — among other animals — three horses, about 20 cats (one indoor) and a peacock that loves blueberries.

“Pretty much anything that wanders onto my place has a home,” she said.

Tarrell has an attachment to her truck, and even gave it a name.

“When I got her she looked so bright and shiny and silver, like a bell,” she said. “I thought Belle and then I thought, nah, that’s too Disney. Isabella.”

The next day she works, she’ll be back early, ready to give Isabella another day on the roads.

Tarrell said she doesn’t listen to music while she drives, because she listens to her truck to make sure it’s running healthy.

In the yard behind Nuverra’s offices, she hops off the steps and says goodbye until her next shift.

“I’ll see you in the morning, girl.”

The trucker married Darin Tarrell, a district manager at Nuverra, in 2011.

She said the wives of oilfield workers have options when they come here with their husbands.

“You can do this too. It’s a great life,” she said. “I really want women to know that you can do it.”

Faces of the Boom: Visiting doctor still makes house calls

Dr. Frederick Gross and wife Joyce pose Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, outside the Trenton Community Clinic in Trenton, N.D, where the doctor is working a six-month position. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

TRENTON, N.D. — Eighty-nine-year-old Dr. Frederick Gross still makes house calls.

Gross is back for a second six-month stint providing medical care at the Trenton Community Clinic, about 15 miles from Williston in northwest North Dakota.

He and wife Joyce, 79, live in a nearby senior apartment complex where some of his patients are treated to a practice that’s mostly vanished.

“He makes sure to stop by their house in the morning, makes a house call and then comes to work,” said clinic CEO Cheryl Donoven.

She calls Gross an “old time doctor” that “hates” electronic health records because it takes away from his ability to talk to patients, and this, according to Donoven, is exactly what her elderly patients are craving.

“He sits and visit and makes them feel, so to speak, like they’re not run through a cattle shoot,” she said.

After 38 years practicing internal medicine in Virginia, Gross happily retired. By 2002, he was bored and itching to return to medicine, so when he saw a booth at a medical meeting seeking doctors to fill temp positions he signed up.

Gross keeps up his Virginia license, which allows him to work at federal health facilities.

“I can work at any government-supported clinic: (Veterans Affairs) or Indian. I like the Indians better than the veterans,” Gross said with a grin. “VA hospitals — there’s no freedom.”

His first assignment took the couple to the Spirit Lake Health Center in Fort Totten, N.D., where he and Joyce, a former teacher, spent six summers.

While Gross spent his days taking care of patients struggling with hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and drug addiction, Joyce said she was drawn to the “golden gem of North Dakota” — the historic fort where she volunteered as innkeeper of the Totten Trail Historic Inn.

Gross said his older patients were “mostly appreciative,” and both he and Joyce came to understand that it is a “sign of respect to not look directly at you.”

The couple has since been stationed in the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, the Cherokee Nation Vinita Health Clinic and the Northeastern Tribal Health System in Oklahoma and Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Mont.

At Trenton’s clinic, the Grosses are well-liked and respected, so much so that one staff member has deemed them honorary grandparents.

“It’s been very good. The people who work in the clinic are very helpful,” Gross said. “I like to practice (medicine) because it’s great to make someone well or make a difficult diagnosis.”

Gross said his patients range in age from 40 into their 80s and come in with a variety of ailments including diabetes, hypertension and heart and lung disease.

Because she likes to stay busy, too, Joyce volunteers at the Salvation Army store in downtown Williston where she uses her artistic eye to create window displays.

The clinic, affiliated with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, serves three counties in North Dakota and three in Montana, Donoven said. Because of the energy boom, she said more Indians have come to the Northern Plains seeking work, more than doubling patients served from 2,600 to 6,000.

Gross said he likes the wide open expanse of North Dakota.

“This seems like real America. The people are hard-working, church-going and community- and family-oriented,” Joyce said.

Energy secretary to tour N.D. sites

WASHINGTON – U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will tour Dakota Gasification in Beulah and oil and gas sites in Tioga while visiting North Dakota next week, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp announced Thursday.

Moniz and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will be participating in a U.S. Department of Energy policy meeting at Bismarck State College on Aug 8.

After the meeting, which is part of President Obama’s Quadrennial Energy Review, Heitkamp plans to host Moniz on a tour of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant in Beulah.

On Aug. 9, Hess Corp. will host Moniz on a tour of the Tioga Gas Plant, a drilling rig and a hydraulic fracturing site, Heitkamp said.

It will be the first trip to North Dakota for Moniz, Heitkamp said.

“We’re really excited to show off what we’re doing in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., announced earlier this month that Moniz and Foxx will participate in the Aug. 8 energy review in Bismarck, which will focus on infrastructure constraints with an emphasis on the Bakken.

The meeting is open to the public and there will be a public comment period.

The public can submit comments prior to the meeting by visiting the Department of Energy website, http://energy.gov/epsa/downloads/qer-public-meeting-bismarck-nd-infrastructure-constraints

Other speakers include White House Office of Science and Technology Director John P. Holdren and Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Janice M. Schneider.

The Quadrennial Energy Review includes a series of meetings across the country to examine critical energy issues.

“North Dakota is on the forefront of energy development and we’re doing it all – oil, gas, coal, wind, and biofuels,” said Heitkamp, D-N.D., in a statement. “We have a great deal of insight to offer as the administration seeks input from communities across the country about energy transportation, infrastructure, and development, and I hope many North Dakotans will offer their thoughts.”

Hoeven, R-N.D., pushed for an energy review as part of legislation filed in July of 2012. The goal is to help the federal government better meet its responsibility of providing affordable, clean and secure energy services to Americans.

“We included it in the Domestic Jobs and Energy Act, a bill that will help create a ‘states first,’ all-of-the-above energy plan for our nation similar to the Empower North Dakota plan we built for North Dakota from 2002 to 2010,” Hoeven said in a statement.

Faces of the Boom: Ranch hand and poet has seen oil booms come and go

Day hand, cowboy poet and songwriter DW Groethe takes a break from fencing north of Bainville, Mont., Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

BAINVILLE, Mont. — If you give DW Groethe a subject, he can give you a poem and a song.

It might be about cowboys, true love or the oil boom.

“Words, once they get inside your head, they end up creating a whole new world,” Groethe said. “They’re just wonderful to work with. It’s innate.”

He was just a boy when North Dakota saw its first oil boom in the 1950s. The parents of his two best friends worked in the oilfield.

The Williston native was working on a fine arts degree in theater at the University of North Dakota when the second boom hit. He remembers “a lot of fun and a lot of people.”

From Groethe’s home across the line in Bainville, Mont., this boom is “massive.”

“It’s beyond belief. I run across a lot of ranch kids building a stake for themselves (in the oilfields),” he said.

Writing and music were his passions since before age 8. After college, Groethe said he played in a couple of bands and worked at a photography studio, as the “boom was going bust then, not much for work.”

By the early ‘90s he said he heard about people looking for guys to fix fence and work cows, and he thought it might be a good fit.

So Groethe headed west, just across the state line into Montana, bought a house on a handshake and became a ranch hand.

“The smartest thing I ever did was leave Williston, move to Bainville and went working cows, because my poetry and my songwriting — my level of creativity — went from a two to a 10 plus,” he said.

In 2003, Groethe was invited to the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., which highlights the cultural heritage of the American West. This year marked his 10th year as a participant.

“It’s occupational poetry because it’s about our way of life and what we do. Historically, we swapped stories around a campfire,” he said.

Chuck Wilder, owner of Books on Broadway in downtown Williston, said he’s known Groethe since the early 1980s. Wilder attended Williston High School with his two youngest brothers and said the elder Groethe “ran with” an eclectic group in the arts community.

“He’s a good poet, a good writer. He’s just very talented in the arts,” Wilder said.

Groethe, who worked as a ranch hand for nearly two decades, now works as a freelance day hand. The days can be long because “cows don’t take a day off,” however, he still finds inspiration in the people, the animals and the land.

“My heart’s in Montana/where the first rays of dawn/rustle grasslands from sleep/then for hours sweep on till the tips of the Rockies/are swallowed then gone in stardust…in Montana,” Groethe wrote in his poem, “My Heart’s in Montana.”

His poems have been published in four chapbooks (a small book or pamphlet) and five books including his latest, “Prairie Song: A Meander of Memory.” Groethe has recorded some of his songs as well.

Organizations like the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry have helped spread the word about his poetry. His two gigs per month at folk festivals, ag banquets and cowboy poetry gatherings allow him to showcase his repertoire of poems and songs, Groethe said.

“Somehow or another it changes their perception or reality of the world. You can’t put a price on that.”

Faces of the Boom: Adventure, solitude rewarding for Oil Patch ‘wanderer’

Anneli Anderson, a 24-year-old line locator for B&G Oilfield Services poses near a ONEOK natural gas pipeline block valve outside Williston, N.D., on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Anneli Anderson recalls the last time she said goodbye to her older brother, Evan.

He had traveled home to Cokato, Minn., in the late summer of 2011 to take a break from his job in the North Dakota oilfields.

“I was sneaking out (of the house). Evan was sitting in the kitchen and he hollered at me, ‘Bye An,’” said Anderson, then 22.

By October Evan was gone — a fatality on a western North Dakota road. But it’s his unbounded spirit that she holds close, perhaps leading her west to Williston two years ago “for work and an adventure.”

“We’re wanderers — always an adventure. At that point, he was probably my closest brother,” said Anderson, one of 10 siblings.

On Tuesday, Anderson was behind the wheel of her B&G Oilfield Services pickup north of Williston, scanning the prairie for stakes that marked a natural gas pipeline operated by Oklahoma-based ONEOK Partners.

Her task was to plant yellow flags — signifying gas — along an a one-mile stretch of the underground lines so that Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative could later install utility poles and anchors.

“She’s very diligent, quick and precise. She does a great job representing our organization,” said Pat Bertagnolli, director of human resources and safety for B&G.

Women make up 40 percent of the company’s line locators. They also provide hydrovac services (utilizing water in the digging process) and work as heavy equipment operators.

“We have a great team. I’m very conscientious about (diversity),” he said.

Anderson insists it’s all about “fun.” She describes herself as an easy-going and very stubborn Minnesotan, who when asked her age said, “24¾,” enjoys the outdoors and the solitude of her job.

Unlike many millennials who grew up with the Internet and rely on a smartphone or GPS, Anderson has no qualms about reading a traditional map — as in the 37 large maps showing ONEOK’s gas pipelines.

“Some people can’t read maps, it drives me bonkers. We did a lot of that in school. I feel like I don’t remember not knowing how to read maps,” she said.

Her boss, Bruce Ward, said he was trained by a woman locator and credits her with his realization that women “can do it better than most of the guys.”

“They prioritize, they schedule their day according to their work. … On average, Anneli will walk up to 10 miles per day. My women locators are very detail oriented,” he said.

The job’s primary challenges have been the weather  — rain, mud and wind — and getting a good signal using tools that rely on radio signals to pinpoint utility lines.

With siblings Brandon and Kirsti, who came to Williston with her husband and three kids in January, she has formed a strong family bond in her home away from home.

Anderson’s sun-kissed looks belie her tenacity and spunk. She set her sights on North Dakota after her brother’s death. His spirit may serve as a reminder of what’s possible.

“I think some women are just too chicken to go for it and get a great job, but maybe it takes time. You just have to stay positive and keep looking. I started working at a candy warehouse and now I have a really fun job and I get paid well,” she said.

Faces of the Boom: Teacher and fishing guide gives newcomers lessons on Lake Sakakawea

Matt Liebel, owner of Liebel’s Guide Service, poses onboard his Lund 2010 Predator on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota on Wednesday, July 10, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Matt Liebel may be a fish whisperer.

The Watford City native started fishing before age 5, and like any savvy fish whisperer-in-training, his mantra proved prescient.

“Let’s go fishing, let’s go fishing” — words his dad, an avid fisherman, remembers Liebel saying often.

As an eighth-grade earth science teacher at Williston Middle School, he finds opportunities to weave his passion for the sport into his teaching and in building relationships with his students.

Two years ago he achieved a longtime dream: Liebel’s Guide Service.

“I probably wanted to guide before I wanted to teach. Part of guiding is being able to teach people to fish. I thought it would be cool to take people fishing,” said Liebel, 28.

Under Wednesday’s hazy skies, he, along with friend and fellow teacher Jeff Winslow, backed Liebel’s Lund 2010 Predator down the boat ramp at Van Hook Recreation Area into the silvery waters of Lake Sakakawea.

Megan and John Mack of Everett, Wash., friends of Winslow and used to “fishing trout and salmon,” were excited about catching walleye.

“We wanted to see what North Dakota has to offer, and part of that’s fishing. My buddy Jeff said this is the guy to go — he’s a Governor’s Cup winner,” John said.

Liebel and teammate Tory Hill, a friend since kindergarten, snagged first place ($10,000) in the North Dakota Governor’s Walleye Cup in 2011 with 10 fish for a total of 31.95 pounds. Other wins have included the Catch for a Cure Ice Fishing Tournament in 2010 and 2012 and the 4 Bears Casino Walleye Cup in 2009.

“It’s kind of a Ricky Bobbie (from the movie “Talladega Nights”): If you’re not first, you’re last,” Liebel said. “You get the taste, you can’t get rid of it. It sounds cliche — you want to win them all.”

Getting away from the traffic that has come with western North Dakota’s oil boom is just one of the appeals of fishing.

“Some will argue (oil) hasn’t impacted wildlife, but it has. I understand energy development is necessary, but I wish it was a little bit more controlled,” Liebel said.

But the boom has been a boon to his guide service.

Liebel estimates that only 10 percent of his clients are locals, 10 percent are on vacation or traveling through the area and 80 percent are people who have come to North Dakota to work in the oilfields.

And men between the ages of 20 and 45 account for 90 percent of his business. Only about 50 percent have fished walleye, he added.

Clients come to Liebel with a wide range of experience, and some, like Megan and her husband, are veterans. But fishing walleye for the first time can excite even the most seasoned angler.

“She was just screaming, excited. She had the biggest one (at 26¾ inches, just over 6 pounds). That made my day, biggest walleye we’ve caught in the boat this year,” Liebel said.

Winslow, who also teaches at Williston Middle School, caught a 12-pound walleye during his first time walleye fishing with Liebel in 2010. He credits Liebel’s expertise and skills with his ability to reel in both fish and customers.

“He’s taught me everything I know about walleye fishing. Aside from all his knowledge, he’s a schoolteacher, so his patience for people is better than most,” he said.

Bakken drug trade highlighted in federal report

WILLISTON, N.D. – Drug trafficking in the Bakken is highlighted in the National Drug Control Strategy released Wednesday by the White House drug czar.

The 102-page document includes several mentions of North Dakota and Montana, including about a page dedicated to the need for agencies to collaborate in response to a “burgeoning threat” in the Bakken.

“This influx of highly paid oil field workers into an area with limited opportunities for spending their income has created a market for drugs and contributed to an overall increase in crime,” the report says.

Michael Botticelli, acting director of National Drug Control Policy, was unveiling the drug control strategy Wednesday in Roanoke, Va. The previous drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske, visited North Dakota’s Oil Patch about a year ago.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said a mention of a North Dakota-specific crime issue in such a plan is unusual, and he’s not sure it has ever happened before.

“This underscores the urgency of the need for additional law enforcement resources to respond to the growing organized crime problem we are facing in the Bakken,” Purdon said.

The document cites statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report that shows that crimes in the Williston Basin increased 32 percent from 2005 through 2011, and violent crimes including murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape and robbery increased 121 percent.

“These dramatic increases have overwhelmed state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies working with limited resources,” the report says.

The drug control strategy says that federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies should work together with prevention and treatment specialists “to provide a balanced, holistic approach to reducing drug use and its consequences.”

The report also mentions that the Bakken has experienced a large influx of outlaw motorcycle gangs attempting to establish “ownership” of the territory, facilitating the illegal drug trade and prostitution.

Purdon said the federal law enforcement response to the challenges has included additional agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies.

“The fact is our home towns in the Bakken are developing big city crime problems and we need more resources from every level of government — federal, state, tribal and local — to continue this fight,” Purdon said.

During a recent discussion in Minot hosted by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., law enforcement officials called for more federal and state resources to fight crime.

Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski said the Drug Enforcement Agency is “invisible” in western North Dakota. Other agencies, including the U.S. Border Patrol, said they struggle to recruit and retain law enforcement officers, particularly in western North Dakota.

Heitkamp and Montana Sen. Jon Tester organized Kerlikowske’s visit to the Bakken last year. In a statement Wednesday, Heitkamp said the administration took an important step by identifying the Bakken as part of its national drug control strategy.

“I will continue to work closely with the administration, local law enforcement, and other officials to address this problem and get support to those who need it,” Heitkamp said.

The full report is available here

Faces of the Boom: Smoke shop angles for return customers

Tobacco Depot owner Phil Hamda helps a customer on Thursday, July 3, 2014, at his shop in Alexander, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

ALEXANDER, N.D. – New Yorker Phil Hamda came to North Dakota to scout for real estate opportunities, but his plans changed after paying nearly $8 for a pack of cigarettes in Williston.

Hamda, whose father owned tobacco shops in New York City, noticed that tobacco prices in the Bakken varied widely.

“In New York, if you don’t like the prices, there’s a store right next door,” Hamda said.

Instead of trying to develop housing, Hamda took lessons he learned from his father and opened the Tobacco Depot in Alexander in February. He says his niche is fair, consistent prices that earn him repeat customers.

“Everybody’s nuts about our prices,” Hamda said. “We’re not extortionists.”

He initially struggled to find retail space and planned to operate from a trailer in Watford City. But when that location didn’t work out, he discovered a space for rent along the heavily traveled U.S. Highway 85 in Alexander, between Williston and Watford City.

“You couldn’t ask for better visibility than this,” Hamda said as a steady stream of oilfield traffic goes by his shop.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is constructing a bypass that will take Highway 85 traffic around Alexander. Hamda said he expects the bypass will actually help his business because the traffic is often so heavy that customers can’t get into his parking lot.

“A lot of guys say they’ve been trying to get in here for a week,” Hamda said.

Hamda said he wasn’t prepared for the demand for electronic cigarettes and personal vaporizers. They account for about half of his business, primarily because smoking isn’t allowed on many oilfield locations and housing camps where workers live, Hamda said. He also sells a lot of chewing tobacco and cigarettes by the carton.

Hamda, who spent 20 years self-employed as a contractor, was in the middle of developing two six-unit condominium buildings in Jersey City, N.J., when the recession hit. He still wants to finish the buildings, and his success in North Dakota will help him do that.

He plans to sell the buildings once they’re complete and make North Dakota his home.

“After I’m done with them, I’m bringing that money here,” said Hamda, who has plans to expand his tobacco business. “There’s plenty of opportunity out here and I think it’s safe to invest.”

Faces of the Boom: Tattoo artist roving the N.D. oilfields

Dan Golebiewski works on a tattoo Thursday, June 26, 2014, from his mobile tattoo shop near Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Tattoo artist Dan Golebiewski is drilling ink in the Bakken to pay the mortgage back home.

As business at his tattoo shop in northern Idaho slowed down in recent years along with the economy, Golebiewski kept hearing about North Dakota from friends who moved there to work in the oilfield.

He took a trip to the Bakken in 2012 and saw the potential. The husband and father of two then spent his days off for the next two years turning a used RV into a professional mobile Dan’s Tattoo Shop.

“I pretty much exhausted my life back there financially,” said Golebiewski, who’s been working in North Dakota for about a month. “This is what I need to do to survive.”

Golebiewski’s plan is to travel where the oil workers are and cater to their busy work schedules.

“I could be busy all day, every day, and not even affect the shops in town. Age-wise, this is our target audience,” he said. “It’s a wide-open market.”

Developing a mobile tattoo shop for the Bakken required meeting guidelines of health departments in both North Dakota and Montana. The RV’s clean, white interior features a separate tattoo area, hand-washing station and customized lighting. Golebiewski uses disposable tattoo tubes to eliminate the need to have an autoclave to sterilize the equipment.

“We’re doing everything totally legal, above board,” he said.

Dan’s Tattoo Shop is approved by health departments in North Dakota and Montana. Owner Dan Golebiewski also drives the “Danbulance” to haul tools and equipment. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

After getting certified by health departments in both states, Golebiewski’s next challenge was finding places to operate. He hired an attorney two years ago to investigate Williston’s rules, but since then the city has implemented a moratorium on mobile businesses.

Golebiewski found a land owner outside Williston in Williams County who has a lot that is zoned commercial and has given him permission to operate there. He’s actively looking for other sites in the region where he can operate.

Occasionally, Golebiewski will run into someone who wants him to do a tattoo at a location where he doesn’t have permission.

“I would love to do the work, but I have to turn it down,” he said. “I put so much into this, so I don’t want to blow it at all.”

Business is so far slower than Golebiewski expected it to be, and he’s had several clients fail to show up for appointments after he spent time doing drawings. But many customers he has seen have become repeat customers.

“What I like out here is the guys do have a little bit more money than back home,” Golebiewski said. “They’re doing a little bit bigger designs, they’re giving me a little more freedom.”

Most of his clients are oilfield workers, but Golebiewski said he’s been surprised at the number of female customers. He also sees some familiar faces.

“Because there are so many Idaho people here, I get people coming up to me saying, ‘You tattooed my mom 10 years ago,’ ” he said.

Golebiewski said he is fascinated by the stories of his diverse clientele and hearing about the various oil industry jobs. He started a YouTube channel called Ink Drillers featuring interviews with customers about life in the oilfield “with a tattoo twist.”

“Everybody likes the tattoo guy,” Golebiewski said. “They open up and tell me stuff.”

He also posts photos and videos on Dan’s Tattoo Shop page on Facebook, and he can be reached at (208) 771-1717.

Golebiewski still owns his tattoo shop in Hayden, Idaho, that a manager is running for him. He plans to work in North Dakota during warm weather months and visit his family in Idaho when he can. He lives out of the cab of the RV, which is completely separate from the tattoo shop, sleeping on a fold-down bunk.

“I want to work like the oil rig guys, 10-12 hours a day,” he said. “I’m here to work and sleep, that’s it.”

Click here for a video tour of the mobile tattoo shop.