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How Texas' oil fracking boom tore a "highway of death" through this tiny town

Texas and New Mexico communities face skyrocketing traffic accidents and housing prices with thousands of oil workers in town.

by Renee Lewis
Nov 12 2018, 5:59pm

LOVING COUNTY, Texas — Every day, about 10,000 cars, trucks, and oil tankers race along U.S. Route 285 through Loving, home to just 134 people. The two-lane road has become so dangerous that Sheriff Chris Busse won’t drive it unless he’s in his police cruiser. He calls it the “highway of death.”

The county’s 400 percent increase in traffic accidents since 2015 is just one of the complaints town officials and longtime residents sitting atop the Permian Basin — a petroleum-rich area of southeast New Mexico and West Texas — have about the oil industry’s effects on their rural towns.

"How can the least populated county [in the contiguous U.S.] still have 7,000 to 15,000 cars going up and down our roadways?” Asked Busse. “The state needs to do something."

Before the historic oil boom brought on by fracking technology, these were largely wide-open desert spaces criss-crossed by dry arroyos, dotted with mesquite bushes, and scattered with ranches, farms, and small towns. Now, the once-barren landscapes are peppered with nodding pumpjacks, fracking sites, wastewater disposal sites, and tank batteries — which sometimes get struck by lightning, causing explosions and fires.

And the influx of workers, which has doubled some towns’ populations, has exploded housing markets and driven up the cost of living beyond what’s affordable to many of those not working in the oil industry.

And then there’s the stench: Fracking, a process that releases oil and gas deposits from shale rock, also releases a chemical that smells like rotten eggs.

But the past few years of fracking in the Permian has helped push the U.S. to its highest oil production since it began keeping records in the 1920s, according to the Brookings Institute, which said the boom is likely to stay in play for at least the next decade.

And the job market has brought new people and opportunities to the communities, including six-figure salaries and customers for small businesses that might not survive without the increased population.

Still, in some counties, leadership and locals says they’ve seen relatively few benefits from the boom, while watching their infrastructure strain under the weight of thousands of newcomers.

Loving County is home to only 134 people at last count. Five years ago, Busse said, residents might have seen just a few cars pass each hour on the highway. Now, they find themselves on the main drag for the thousands of people commuting to work in the oil fields, as well as transporting the goods and infrastructure.

The county, without its own EMS, police, or fire services, is ill-equipped to handle the traffic boom. They get help from the nearby city of Pecos and the state public safety department, but since the department covers such a wide and heavily trafficked area, it can often take an hour for them to get to an accident site, Sheriff Busse said.

There have been seven fatalities from crashes this year alone, according to Busse. He cited inattention, fatigue, speeding, and illicit drugs as the main causes of accidents, which he says occur daily.

Towns and cities across the basin are also facing challenges. So, while most leadership has been welcoming to the workers and the revenue they bring, there’s a sense that Southern hospitality is nearing its limit.

In Jal, a small town in Lea County, the oil workers have nearly doubled the population, bursting from the town’s limited housing stock into parked trailers, RVs and hotels.

“We’re a little community of 2,000 people,” said Mayor Stephen Aldridge. “It’s going to change the face of the community. And in small communities, change can be difficult.”

Eddy County Fire Services Director Joshua Mack said he’s seen two explosions at tank batteries, with four fatalities, since he took the job in March 2017. Dozens of tanks will often be grouped together on the side of the road, Mack said.

“When lightning strikes, it’ll be a fire,” Mack said, adding that he’s seen up to 15 tank battery fires in a single night. The county is 4,900 square miles, with four paid staff for fire and emergency medical services. Another 217 men and women volunteer.

Read: The rise in Texas earthquakes is "almost certainly" due to drilling.

In Eddy County’s largest city, Carlsbad, where population spiked from 55,000 in 2010 to almost 80,000 now, every campground within 30 miles is full of oil workers living in trailers, RVs and even tents. Hotel rates average around $400 a night.

Oil boom
In this Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, photo, an oil rig and pump jack are at work as seen from the roadside of FM 1788 in Midland, Texas. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)

Calling Carlsbad the “epicenter” of the boom, Mayor Dale Janaway said by email that “with this much rapid growth have come many challenges, especially with traffic, housing, and infrastructure.”

Valen Martinez, a real estate agent in Carlsbad, said her agency rarely has many listings because houses sell so quickly. “Anything that’s on the market is usually gone within a day or two,” Martinez said. Marketing and open houses have become a thing of the past.

Housing costs have been driven up by saturation and the high oil field wages — and so has the cost of living, including food and services by local businesses, residents said. A truck driver working in the oil fields can make around $100,000 per year, whereas the median household income for Carlsbad is about $58,000.

“I worked in the area for 10 years and could no longer sustain my family because I didn’t make oil field wages,” said Diana Thomas, who lived in Carlsbad until 2017. Thomas, who worked as a quality assurance coordinator for Landsun Homes, a retirement community, before moving to Moore, Idaho, said her family also stopped visiting because hotels in the area were unaffordable.

The lack of housing has also caused a teacher shortage in Carlsbad, according to the Associated Press — there’s simply nowhere to live, and the prices are prohibitive for most, residents told VICE News. A two-bedroom apartment can average $1,500 a month — comparable to rent in major cities but out-of-reach for many in a city where the average household makes about $58,000 per year.

Another thing that has dampened Carlsbad’s appeal is the hydrogen sulfide in the air — a colorless, flammable and highly toxic gas that is released as part of oil and gas production and refining.

At best, it smells of rotten eggs, and it’s particularly potent in the early mornings. At worst — at high levels — it causes unconsciousness and death by respiratory paralysis.

The effects of the gas at low levels hasn’t been well studied — although a 2004 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study on the impacts of the oil and gas industry in Southeastern New Mexico found that it’s been reported to cause flu-like symptoms and eye and respiratory irritation at low levels. The U.S. Department of Labor also warns that prolonged exposure to low levels of the hydrogen sulfide can cause nausea, tearing of the eyes, headaches, and airway problems.

“I’ve never used an inhaler before in my life. I’m 38, and suddenly the last few years I’ve had to use one,” said Carlsbad resident Miro Doporto, who blames the oil and gas industry for his sudden breathing problems.

Meanwhile, state tax revenue is soaring, and about 70 percent of that is thanks to the oil boom centered in Eddy — where Carlsbad is located — and Lea counties. But town leadership said they don’t feel the state is allocating enough resources for infrastructure issues resulting from the population boom.

Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said his department is forced to pick and choose their battles due to understaffing and the unsafe roads that need repair. He’s created a new traffic department in response to the increase in accidents. Cage said he has “the best of the best” working for him and that has allowed them to make do with limited resources — for now.

But the state should allocate more resources to Eddy and Lea County — the state’s “golden goose” — so they can continue bringing in the oil revenue, Cage said.

“Why not invest to ensure that the revenue continues unimpeded?” he added.

New Mexico State Senator Cathrynn Brown, a Carlsbad native, said she “cannot overemphasize how much of a public safety issue” roads in the oil-producing areas have become.

Brown said that while at the outset of the 2019 legislative session the state is predicted to have a $2 billion revenue surplus, mostly thanks to Eddy and Lea counties, there is no easy mechanism to direct extra funds to southeast New Mexico.

“The astronomically large surplus comes at the expense of Southeast regional infrastructure, particularly roads and highways,” Brown added. She said she plans to sponsor legislation to invest a large part of the surplus back into the Permian Basin’s towns and cities.

New Mexico State Senator Carroll Leavell, who is from Jal, said he’ll also be working to make sure the state budget allocates more resources to southeast New Mexico.

In response to the increased accidents, the state has made a 22-mile stretch of Highway 285 a safety corridor, doubling traffic violation fines and setting aside $25 million for repairs.

And the New Mexico Department of Transportation already has long-term plans in place for fixing the state’s roads more generally. But the way their resources are allocated depends on lawmakers, said Kimberly Gallegos, the department spokesperson.

Brown said one of her top priorities is legislation to achieve a “special needs” funding for roads, highways and bridges.

During rush hour, the stretch on 285 from Carlsbad to Pecos is backed up for miles with semis and trucks. Impatient drivers sometimes try to pass long lines of vehicles in the oncoming traffic lane.

Halfway to Texas there’s a cluster of gas stations that serve oil field workers hot food, good coffee, and snacks. Welder Michael Cortez was grabbing lunch there.

He said drivers passing in no-passing zones and ending up stuck in the lane for oncoming traffic, unable to merge, is so common on 285 that he’s already planned to drive off onto the road’s shoulder if he ends up in this type of chicken situation.

Nine people were killed on Highway 285 in Eddy County last year, according to the sheriff’s department. Forty-six people were killed in accidents this year in the Permian Basin area of Texas on Highway 285 and other roads trafficked by workers.

The Texas Department of Transportation has $100 million in projects currently under contract on Highway 285 from the New Mexico state line to Pecos, Texas, said Veronica Beyer, director of media relations. Over the next 10 years, the state will invest $3.4 billion for the entire Permian Basin region to pay for safety improvements, such as wide roads and stronger pavement.

But in the meantime, in the town of Pecos, some elderly residents have given up driving altogether because the roads are so dangerous, Mayor Venetta Seals said.

Pecos — the county seat of Reeves County, with a 2017 population of about 9,000 — used to feel like a neighborly and intimate town, but Seals said she doesn’t even know exactly how many people are living there these days.

And while she appreciates the opportunities brought by the oil boom, the extra burden of thousands of transient workers living in the city is taking a toll.

“We kind of feel like the redheaded stepchild,” Seals said.

Cover: A truck on U.S. Route 285. (Photo by Renee Lewis)