Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.
Reuters / Jim Urquhart
Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.

The New York Times continues its excellent series on the ramifications of North Dakota’s fracking boom with a look at the state’s overstressed, insufficient healthcare system. (Previously: the state’s gender imbalance.)

The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region’s health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy. …

Over all, ambulance calls in [one western area of the state] increased by about 59 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to Thomas R. Nehring, the director of emergency medical services for the North Dakota Health Department. The number of traumatic injuries reported in the oil patch increased 200 percent from 2007 through the first half of last year, he said.

The 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota saw their combined debt rise by 46 percent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, according to Darrold Bertsch, the president of the state’s Rural Health Association.

The rate of injury shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2011, Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicated [PDF] that workers in mining and oil and gas extraction had an on-the-job fatality rate of 71.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. While lower than rates for fishermen and loggers, it’s far higher than other theoretically dangerous occupations. The Atlantic breaks the data down further, if you’re interested.

But back to North Dakota. The problem with healthcare access and funding doesn’t start at the hospital walls.

Public utility numbers suggest that the population of Watford City has more than quadrupled to 6,500 over the past two years, [McKenzie County Hospital Chief Executive Daniel] Kelly said. In nearby Williston, considered the heart of the oil boom, the population, including temporary workers, has swelled to 25,000 to 33,000 from fewer than 15,000 in 2010, according to a study by North Dakota State University.

The huge population growth has produced new communities virtually overnight, creating logistical problems that affect the quality of medical care.

After a recent emergency call, Kelly Weathers, who has worked as a paramedic in the region for nearly 25 years, drove in circles with his team for about 15 minutes, searching for the address where they had been sent to treat a man who had hurt his back falling off a piece of equipment. But they could not find the street because a sign had not yet been erected. Eventually, a colleague of the injured man met the ambulance at the highway and escorted them to the site.

North Dakota is the country’s fastest-growing state. It’s growing far faster than its infrastructure can keep up: Streets are built and populated before they can even be labeled. There’s little evidence that the primary beneficiaries of the boom — the oil companies — have any willingness to help bear the financial burden that results. It’s yet another externalized cost from the fossil fuel industry, a burden that it avoids to keep its costs low and profits high.

The state’s governor hopes to get approval for an expenditure of $74 million for a new medical school building at the University of North Dakota and an expansion of a nursing program at a local state college. In September, ExxonMobil made a big investment in the state, too, spending $1.6 billion in cash for a massive expansion of its fracking acreage. $1.6 billion buys you 196,000 acres of frackable land — or 21 new medical school buildings complete with nursing programs.