North Dakota Races to Address Housing Inspection, Facility Needs Following Oil Boom

February 17, 2016|9:36 a.m.| Virgie Townsend

North Dakota’s shale oil boom made it the state with the lowest unemployment as new workers poured into its Western region in search of high-paying jobs in the oil patches. But the population fluctuations also placed greater demands on the North Dakota Department of Health (NDDOH), which had to find new ways to accommodate growing food and lodging needs.

The oil boom’s impact hit NDDOH’s Food and Lodging Division about four years ago, according to Division Director Kenan Bullinger. The sudden population rise affected everything from hotels and motels to restaurants to body art parlors, all of which require the division’s inspection.

“Western North Dakota was a little bit more sparsely populated prior to the boom,” Bullinger said. “It didn’t have a way to house all of the new workers. All of these people were coming, and they needed places to stay and eat.”

With limited affordable living spaces, the new population began buying property to start recreational vehicle (RV) parks. But RVs aren’t designed to be permanent homes, and their water lines would freeze up.

“RVs aren’t constructed to sustain North Dakota winters, where temperatures can get down to 20° or 30° below and there’s lots of wind,” said Bullinger.

To create more lodging and food options, the division made it a priority to quickly review building plans once they received local approval.

“We had a goal of having construction plans reviewed and responded to within 10 working days,” Bullinger said. “Over 95 percent of the time, we met that goal because we knew the urgency.”

The health department also increased the number of inspectors working in Western North Dakota, assigning coverage duties to inspectors elsewhere in the state until funding became available for permanent additional staffing. Prior to the boom, the division had one inspector working in the area.

Demand for food vendors grew during the boom, particularly grab-and-go places that would allow oil workers to pick up a quick bite, sleep, and return to work immediately. Sometimes people tried to take advantage of the supply issue by selling food without a license.

“Mobile vendors could be hard to track down, so we issued press releases warning people to be careful about whom they bought vending food from,” said Bullinger. “We had to educate people about checking for licensing.”

Bullinger said the division began to feel some relief from the oil boom’s pressures about a year-and-a-half ago. Lodging had caught up with demand, there were more restaurants, and motel prices leveled off.

Then global oil prices dropped in 2015. Oil companies capped their output in North Dakota’s patches and slowed down on hiring. With fewer jobs available, some of the oil workers began leaving the state. For those who lived in RVs or campers, there’s a temptation to abandon them because disposing of RVs properly can cost more than $200. But the deserted RVs pose their own public health risks.

“Abandoned RVs become places where weeds, rodents, and other vermin can accumulate, and they’re fire hazards,” said Bullinger.

Sometimes RVs and campers left scattered along the roads or highways, acting as obstructions that are hazardous to drivers. The division is now collaborating with counties and emergency managers to coordinate disposing of them.

Although the oil companies are still working in North Dakota—and the food and lodging division is still busy—the industry slowdown has allowed the division to catch its breath, and reflect on how it will respond if oil prices rise in the future.

“We learned a lot of lessons, so if the price takes off again, we’ll be prepared,” Bullinger said. “And now there are the facilities to take care of it.”

Virgie Townsend is senior editor of communications and social media at ASTHO.