Oil Company Isolates Workers to Fight Drug Abuse

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One of North America's largest oil companies is tackling increased drug and alcohol use among its employees with "man camps." The company is housing workers at drill rigs so that it can enforce strict antisubstance abuse policies.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. The word roughneck is both a term for a bad guy, a rough guy, and also an oil worker. In some towns, it's the same thing. With more oil workers, the crime rate goes up.

CHADWICK: And so do illegal drugs, specifically methamphetamine. The oil and gas companies are responding, locking down their workers in so-called man camps, next to oilrigs. Kirk Siegler of Aspen Public Radio visited one of the camps.

Mr. GARY ZIMMERMAN (Crew Leader, EnCana Corporation): These are mud pumps, we pump about 830 gallons a minute.

KIRK SIEGLER: Gary Zimmerman of Seward, Alaska is a crew leader on this rig, owned by the Canadian company EnCana Corporation. Zimmerman says he's seen drug abuse worsen in his 30 years in the oil and gas fields. And he doesn't like it.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: You know, you got so much heavy iron and stuff you can't be coming out here hung over and on drugs, you know, if I even thought a person drank the night before, they'd be gone.

SIEGLER: Amid growing pressure from nearby communities to keep problem workers under control and to increase safety, EnCana now runs nearly a dozen man camps next to their Colorado rigs. The camps are glorified doublewide trailers. They look like college dorms, except they're sparkling clean. Roughnecks, as the drillers are called, finish their marathon twelve hour shifts, walk about fifty feet, and they're home.

Unidentified Man: I'm gaining about 20 pounds since I ended up here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGLER: Over a plate stacked high with French fries and lasagna in the camp's kitchen, 35-year-old Brady Fretland says being a roughneck is hard work, and tedious at times. As he prepares to go on the graveyard shift for a week, Fretland says Red Bull and caffeine are essentials.

Mr. BRADY FRETLAND (Worker, EnCana): Without tobacco, and sugar and energy drinks and coffee, roughnecks couldn't function.

SIEGLER: But Fretland says some of the younger guys, even here, turn to drugs. He says it all depends on who's in charge at any one time on a rig.

Mr. FRETLAND: You got somebody who's, kind of, wink, wink, nudge, nudge about stuff like that, they'll get away with it.

SIEGLER: Fretland says he doesn't mind living out here, and the strict rules that come along with it. He's exactly who Jim Jackson hopes to find more of. Jackson is a field-drilling superintendent with EnCana, and came up with the idea for these modern-day man camps. Jackson grew up in the oil patch, bouncing from one state to the next, a lifestyle he says isn't conducive to stability.

Mr. JIM JACKSON (Field-drilling superintended, EnCana): I went to 8 different schools in the third grade. That was my worst year.

SIEGLER: Jackson believes the transient and often risk-taker lifestyle of roughnecks leads to drug and alcohol abuse. But he thinks providing a safe and healthy, as well as strict working environment, will keep roughnecks clean.

Mr. JACKSON: And I think over the next year, we'll prove, that these guys when they come out here and live, and live with each other, they won't tolerate it. It becomes self-policing.

SIEGLER: So far, EnCana officials say their plan is working. Jackson says there hasn't been a single drug-related incident here in the 10 months since the man camps were built. But in the nearby town of Rifle, police chief Darryl Meisner says drug and alcohol related crimes continue to rise, despite the program. He's projecting a three-percent increase over last year.

Mr. DARRYL MEISNER (Chief Police, Rifle, Colorado): You know housing them in man camps sounds like a good idea. However, they're still going to come to town to shop. There's no bars out there, so they're going to come to town to buy their liquor. They're going to come to town to have their parties. They're going to come to town to buy whatever supplies they need, and in some cases to steal whatever supplies they need.

SIEGLER: In rural Colorado, meth-related offenses are more than twice the national average. Meisner says there are no hard stats to show the increase in drug-related crimes is directly related to the gas rigs pulling in. But he believes it's more than just a coincidence that crimes are going up amid the dramatic influx of oil and gas workers. Back at the man camp, roughneck Brady Fretland says that's a perception that carries some weight in this industry.

Mr. FRETLAND: Oh, I'm 35 years old and my days of raising hell are dwindling rapidly. But the younger pups, they've got money in their pocket just burning a hole in it, if they don't have kids, don't have a family, yeah, they're going to town and there's going to be drinking and fighting going on.

SIEGLER: EnCana officials acknowledge they can't possibly expect to wipe out the drug and alcohol problems among the industry's workforce. But they see man camps and the strict, zero tolerance policies enforced in them, as a logical first step.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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