Counties Prepare for Labor Camps, Traffic, Crime as Pipeline is Built



TransCanada is preparing to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to cut through South Dakota. Courtesy photo.

TransCanada is preparing to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to cut through South Dakota. Courtesy photo.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series.

SOUTH DAKOTA – In the next six months, two cities will arise on the South Dakota prairie with populations larger than most of the existing towns west of the Missouri River. Two similar cities will be built in 2020.

The temporary towns will exist for up to two years, include several dozen buildings and each be inhabited by up to 1,400 workers, mostly well-paid in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

The residents will work long hours, six days a week, and then have Sundays free to hang out, do laundry and likely stream into nearby towns such as Buffalo, Opal, Philip and Colome, communities with populations ranging from almost zero to around 900 residents.

The workforce camps, also known as “man camps,” will house, feed and care for thousands of men and women who will arrive in South Dakota in 2019 as part of the massive effort to build the Keystone XL Pipeline through nine West River counties.

For some who now live and work along the pipeline route, the workforce camps are the most concerning – and also the most curious – element of the construction project that will bury a 36- inch oil pipeline along a roughly 250-mile stretch of western and central South Dakota.

The workforce camps, the influx of people and the potential for costly or violent protests over the controversial pipeline are hot topics of conversation along the route.

Depending on who you talk to, construction of the pipeline through South Dakota will go one of two very different ways.

Some believe the construction work and arrival of thousands of highly paid employees will bring a burst of prosperity to sparsely populated rural areas that had no other realistic hope for such a sudden, significant economic windfall.

Yet others worry the project will cause traffic risks and crime, alter the peaceful pace of small-town South Dakota life, or attract protests that could get violent and cost millions to manage.

Plans for the project that will start next spring are moving quickly as builder and owner TransCanada Corp. rushes to start construction of the $8 billion pipeline next summer. Trucks hauling gravel to beef up country roads are already commonplace and some land is being cleared on the pipeline path.

As the project comes into focus, many of the people along the route are considering how to prepare as they either hope for the best or anticipate the worst.

Right now, the land across Highway 73 from where 68-year-old Maralynn Burns lives in Haakon County is a barren stretch of rolling South Dakota prairie.

By June, that pastureland will be transformed into a bustling city of up to 1,400 people who will live, travel daily to and from nearby work sites and recreate nearby.

Like many residents of areas where the Keystone XL will be built in South Dakota, Burns has more questions than answers about what life will be like during construction. Yet, she is certain that the comfort of her daily routine will be lost.

“The man camp is what makes me nervous,” Burns said recently from behind the counter of Petersen’s Variety store in Philip where she sometimes works. “I’ve never locked my door or taken my keys out of my automobile. I guess I’m going to have to find my house keys now.”

Burns calls the construction of the pipeline and its potential impacts on Haakon County “the best kept secret in Philip,” and “a pretty big deal.” She wonders if more local police will be needed, if traffic will stall at shift changes or what may come when more than 1,000 people take up residence in an area known for cattle sales, quiet living and frequent conversations among locals who almost all know one another.

“Change is hard for us old ones,” she said. “We’re still here because we like our small town and the life here.”

The pipeline route through South Dakota will run northwest to southeast from Harding County through Butte, Perkins, Meade, Pennington, Haakon, Jones, Lyman and Tripp counties before moving into Nebraska.

The pipeline is being built by TransCanada to move crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through Montana and South Dakota, to Steele City, Neb. where it will merge with existing pipelines headed to refineries in Texas. Backers of the pipeline say it is the safest, most economical way to move oil and will help reduce American reliance on oil from less-stable Middle Eastern nations.

Opponents argue that the pipeline will be prone to leaking, is being built through sensitive Native American historical sites and natural landscapes that should be protected, and amounts to subsidization of a foreign country’s quest for money. The pipeline was first proposed nearly a decade ago, then was blocked by former President Barack Obama and finally reinstated by President Donald Trump shortly after he was inaugurated. Construction in South Dakota will start in summer 2019 and run about two years; work will be halted during winter months.

The chance that major protests could arise is causing the most concern for government and law enforcement officials, especially in places like Harding and Haakon counties which each has only a sheriff and one deputy. Those and other rural counties have few government resources. Some rural counties have no jails to house arrestees. Protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016-17 cost local and state governments more than $38 million to manage, and in South Dakota local counties would be expected to pay significant costs before state disaster aid would flow in.

“We’re worried about the protesters and those sorts of things we may have to spend money on — the court system and holding them and all that good stuff,” said Barb DeSersa, auditor for Tripp County, which will be home to a workforce camp and about 55 miles of the pipeline. “People are just kind of nervous as to what’s going to happen.”

The pipeline is being built mainly on private land in South Dakota and most property owners have already signed easements for construction. The South Dakota section will not cross through any American Indian reservations.

Many local officials are also worried about safety on two-lane rural roads that soon will carry thousands of loaded semi-trucks and passenger vehicles. The camp will be located less than a mile north of Philip on state Highway 73, one of the two main roads through the town.

“In the morning all those people will leave there, and some may ride a bus but people will be driving their own outfits and there will be a truck yard there,” said Haakon County Commission Chairman Stephen Clements. “So, you could have 300 to 500 vehicles come rolling out in the morning.”

Concerns have also arisen over the impact an influx of workers will have on small-town schools, hospitals, and other service providers and agencies that are not prepared to handle hundreds of people arriving almost all at once.

“When they say 1,400 workers will come in here, it kind of puts the fear of God in you because we don’t have the facilities to handle that number of people,” said Clements, who is mostly optimistic about outcomes of the construction process.

Outside of any significant protests, the largest impact on local residents – both positive and negative — will likely come from the four workforce camps that will be built and operated by a Texas firm called Target Lodging.

Target Lodging has furnished housing for dozens of prior projects ranging from major concert events to temporary disaster housing to workforce camps in the North Dakota oil fields and at the Olympic games in Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Canada and Athens, Greece. A spokesman for the company declined an interview request by South Dakota News Watch, but according to the firm’s website, all functions are geared to keeping residents comfortable and ready to work. Housing units often resemble modular homes with private rooms and beds. Food options include prime rib steaks, hand-cut French fries, handmade pizzas and the option for healthier foods. Common areas provide space for workout equipment, games like foosball and outdoor sporting activities.

Continued next week.

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