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Fueled by oil drilling, rapid growth will change Bainville forever

Fueled by oil drilling, rapid growth will change Bainville forever

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BAINVILLE — The final meeting to change tiny Bainville forever took an hour.

Not that residents had a choice about corralling the runaway growth bearing down on their northeastern Montana town of 300, a gravel-road town with one cherished K-12 school, a small gas station, a bed and breakfast, two bars and three churches.

“Things are happening here that are unprecedented in 75 to 100 years,” said Bainville Mayor Dennis Portra, who strongly supports the sprawling rail facility being built a mile west of town that will offload fracking sand from Wisconsin to supply the hungry oil fields.

By the time most townsfolk learned of the plans by Procore Logistics LLC of Calgary, Alberta, the land was purchased, the permits largely secured, and construction of the rail facility and nearby man camp were under way.

Procore is investing at least $30 million in this town, which has an annual budget of about $250,000. The project alone will more than double Bainville’s population within two years and send 150 trucks a day — and eventually as many as 600 a day — steaming into the nearby oil field.

To solve Procore’s “heads and beds” problem for its 350 workers, work has begun on an employee man camp on Bainville’s eastern edge. The camp will be a mix of pre-manufactured dorms with some multifamily housing, a dining facility, gym and theater.

And that's just the beginning.

SST Bakken Properties bought the 150-resident man camp that five local farmers developed north of town, and the company will build several hundred more housing units.

Next month, a new Virginia company called Creole Sky will start transforming Bainville’s Welcome Stop — currently a two-pump gas station with a fast food counter and no public restrooms — into a major truck stop. Next summer, the developer will break ground on a 100-bed Marriot Hotel. A Fairfield Inn comes next, and then construction of Bainville’s first retail shops in decades, with offices and condos on the top floors.

Other developers are planning a 400-home subdivision on the northwestern edge of Bainville that will include custom-built and modular homes, plus a dozen commercial lots for 90 homes and 50 trailers. That subdivision alone could house another 1,200 people, the mayor said.

As many as 10 more subdivisions, including one with luxury homes, are being discussed for Bainville, which is 28 miles from Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom.

Like many Hi-Line towns, Bainville has suffered decades of economic and residential decline, struggling to hold on to its school. But, already its school enrollment has doubled, mostly due to its proximity to the oil field.

That proximity — and its geography — is also why Bainville was attractive for the sand loading facility.

“This is the largest straight piece of continuous track between there — Wisconsin — and here. It’s the closest we could get to Williston,” said John Milino, who runs Procore and MacBain Properties, the company building Bainville’s second man camp.

Bainville residents need only look east to nearby Williston to see what's coming. The population of that once-quiet city near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers has quadrupled to an estimated 45,000 residents. Montanans who had depended on it as the closest shopping and medical destination now call it “Crazy Town.”

Milino expects the boom to last 20 to 30 years.

“We’re basically your neighbors for life,” he said of Procore, adding that he doesn't want “be thought of as the guy who came into this town and caused a bunch of problems.”

A mile west of Bainville’s aging grain elevators, crumbling temples of the region’s agricultural tradition and wealth, sit symbols of tomorrow’s economy: a dozen of Procore’s new sand silos.

By early next year, each week a pair of 40-car trains, and eventually 100-car trains, will pull weekly off BNSF’s main track onto Procore’s mile-long sidetrack, offloading tons of fracking sand.

At peak production, the Bainville facility could handle 1 million tons of sand per year, enough to fill 600 truckloads a day. But the volume will probably be half that, Milino said.

“I’d be over the moon with half a million tons a year,” he said.

Neither Roosevelt County nor Bainville have any zoning laws to control growth, so Milino said he could build his own water and sewer facilities for his man camp.

Four years ago, Bainville had doubled the size of its sewer lagoon, but since then its population has nearly doubled, so it's maxed out again.

Milino offered to spend $1.5 million to again double the sewer treatment facility and then sell back the improvements to Bainville for a dollar. That expansion will handle Procore’s man camp, plus another 175 residential and commercial sewer hookups for the town.

The first time most locals heard of Procore was on Sept. 24, when Milino called an unofficial town meeting to explain his plans. During some sharp exchanges, several locals asked about dust from the hundreds of trucks, pressures on scarce sewer and water resources and how long school buses and ambulances might have to sit, waiting for the mile-long trains to pass.

Questions remained largely unanswered at that meeting, and the first official city council meeting on Oct. 8, and at the most recent meeting on Oct. 15 when the sewer project was approved. But Milino said he is talking with Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway officials about scheduling trains.

“We can request BNSF to run trains after hours, but we have no control,” he said.

BNSF Railway Chairman and Chief Executive Matt Rose said rail officials are as surprised as everyone else at how fast the Bakken oil field has boomed. Five years ago, company officials knew nothing about it.

“Last month, we hauled 140 unit trains of crude and, in two years we’ll probably double to 300 unit trains a month,” he told Billings business leaders on Oct. 17.

BNSF is building more track loops to quickly route oil trains off the main line, a model used for agricultural products, Rose said. And talks are beginning with government agencies to help build overpasses or underpasses in places like Bainville.

Although residents had been watching construction along the railroad tracks all summer, few asked what was happening, said Bainville native and area rancher Kirk Panasuk, who said there was a lot of local “apathy and ignorance.”

After an hour-plus public discussion on Oct. 15, Bainville’s two city councilmen approved the three-page, unsigned contract with Procore — which was still being reviewed by the city attorney — and agreed to the lagoon expansion. The mayor, whose vote only counts as a tiebreaker, symbolically voted yes.

Part of the sand facility to the west lies in the city limits, but the man camp is on county land, so Bainville has no jurisdiction. When someone asked what happens if Procore’s camp turns into a “rat’s nest,” Milino said he would not fight annexation into Bainville.

“That will increase your tax base,” he said. “That will cost me more, but it morally is right to help pay for emergency services.”

During the last meeting, all three Roosevelt County commissioners, all strong supporters of Procore, drove over from Wolf Point. Compared to last month’s fireworks when the project was first announced, just a few critics voiced muted concerns, mirroring manners in this close-knit, polite community.

The Procore deal isn’t perfect, said the mayor, “but I think it’s an opportunity to prosper.”

Garth Harmon, who hails from a homesteading farm and ranch family, was giddy at the council meeting.

Earlier that day, he and four other local farmers had sold to SST Bakken Properties the Blaze Enterprises man camp they developed when they spotted the oil boom coming to Bainville. Harmon also landed a piece of the Marriott and Welcome Stop action.

“We tried to find a company (Procore) to build us a new community. I’m ecstatic,” Harmon said.

Roosevelt County planner Julie Burke said she believes the newcomers will be good neighbors and that Bainville is lucky to escape the fate of other Hi-Line towns that have lost their schools and with them much of their identities.

“When has someone come through and offered to write a $1.5 million check?” she said.

But Denise Romo urged her neighbors to stop looking at all the Procore money and stay independent.

“We can, as a town, cowboy up and get a larger lagoon,” she said.

One of her sons, local builder Toby Romo, complained that Mayor Porta had failed to apply for additional grants that take two years, so that Bainville could expand its lagoon again. When Romo asked for a written copy of the Procore contract, the mayor said he had no copies, but would read it aloud to him if he wanted.

“Miss some wording on a contract and all of a sudden they are charging us to use our lagoon,” Tony Romo said.

County Road 327 heading east to Williston that soon will carry hundreds of fracking sand trucks already is a jarring washboard. The state of Montana and Roosevelt County share ownership and neither is taking charge, said Luke Romo, Toby’s brother.

“It needs more blades on it, or get it paved like they’ve been talking about for the last 40 years,” he said.

Pat Wilson, whose family homesteaded Missouri River land 113 years ago, also is concerned about the county road to his ranch carrying more heavy trucks.

Wilson told his neighbors during the last council meeting that he’d be a hypocrite not to acknowledge that his family benefits financially from some of the oil wells on the ranch. But the 64-year-old Bainville graduate, who is a thesis shy of a Ph.D. in American literature from Syracuse University, said he’s concerned about the future because he’s seen the previous booms go bust.

“That still doesn’t mean I’m willing to make a Faustian deal with the devil,” he said. “I have seen several waves of people come in promising El Dorado and leaving behind trails of devastation.”

Wilson is worried about the speed, the scope and the impermanence of this mega boom. Horizontal drilling and fracking is a more concentrated, industrial world than the widely spaced vertical wells of the 1970s, he said. His sons have named a swath of wells cutting two miles into their ranch’s north edge “The Wilson Industrial Park.”

For example, a Continental Resources super pad being developed along the Missouri will hold 14 wells, as opposed to the previous maximum of three or four.

Each Bakken well drinks up to 8 million gallons of water, Wilson said. He pointed to some tanks on his land that store the used fracking water and a pump that re-injects the contaminated liquids deep into the earth. Wilson said the water can’t be used again on the surface, even in a country that is setting drought records.

Wilson said his wife, Laurie, already has serious breathing problems and may not be able to handle more dust. And he renamed Procore’s man camp, “Testosterone Flats” quoting a line from cultural critic Camille Paglia.

The state is happy to take half the tax revenues from Eastern Montana oil, Wilson said, but politicians offer scant financial help, treating the northeast as the “Siberia of Montana.”

Wilson quickly added that he doesn’t want to cause trouble with his lifelong friends and neighbors.

“The vote is done,” he said. “I just hope there’s room for some dissent.”

Then Wilson turned lyrical, paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau's picture of a man leaving a farm and taking the best with him.

“The sights, the sounds, the smells, the wildlife, the whole experience,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’re going to know how precious it was until it’s gone.”



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Business editor for the Billings Gazette.

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