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Energy boom changes road linking to ND oil fields

ANDREA J. COOK Rapid City Journal

LUDLOW, S.D. (AP) — As a trucker who identified himself only as “Buck” sees it, the traffic and turmoil generated by the Bakken oil field in North Dakota keeps growing “like a fungus” along U.S. Highway 85, a once quiet two-lane road that is now busy with speeding trucks and big rigs.

The highway that connects Interstate 90 in South Dakota with the oil patch near Williston, North Dakota, used to be a tranquil, somewhat sleepy country road through the remote ranches and prairies of northwestern South Dakota.

But lately, that typically calm 300-mile run from Spearfish to Williston has been shattered by traffic carrying supplies, oil equipment and workers north to the bounty that awaits in the oil-rich Bakken area.

“There was a time, not that long ago, that you might see 30 cars a day,” reflected Ryanna Turbiville, a resident of Ludlow, a dot on the map about 100 miles into the route.

Turbiville and her husband, Chance, settled into a new home at Ludlow in 2009. They chose to raise their two daughters next door to the Crooked Creek Bar #1 operated by her parents Ron and Suzette Braaten. The location is also convenient for Chance’s job as an oil company technician.

“There’s definitely a lot more traffic,” Turbiville said, estimating that at times it seems like 30 cars whiz by every five minutes.

One of those vehicles is frequently driven by “Buck,” a Guernsey, Wyo. trucker who recently had almost 44,000 pounds of re-threaded, drilling pipe on his semi-trailer. Buck stopped on a recent day in Buffalo to top-off his truck’s radiator with antifreeze before heading north on the desolate 46-mile stretch of U.S. 85 between Buffalo and Bowman, North Dakota.

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Buffalo is the final South Dakota service stop along the unending thread of two-lane highway that is also known as the Canam Highway and the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway.

Twenty miles up the road, Buck would barely notice the spot on the road that is Ludlow. And he likely ignored Ludlow’s 55 mph speed limit.

Ludlow is a quiet small town just south of the North Dakota state line that is really just a wide spot in the road. It’s a place where locals can find a cold beer and an expertly cooked steak at Crooked Creek Bar #1. A small cluster of structures and the Ludlow Volunteer Fire Department Hall surround the neighborhood watering hole.

A bit east, just across that slim thread of highway, stands the Ludlow School. The fenced playground borders the straight stretch of highway and the Ludlow Road that wanders east over the horizon.

North of the school, a quarter-mile away, sits a tiny A-frame church.

It’s an idyllic setting in the early morning — until the parade of traffic picks up momentum.

With increasing frequency, trucks hauling supplies north to the oil fields, or returning south to re-up on supplies, roar along U.S. 85. Pickups and a few commercial vehicles pulling loaded trailers mix in with the long-haul trucks and the occasional car streaming past Ludlow. Every once in a while, a rancher’s familiar mud-spattered pickup joins the parade.

“The traffic is scary,” said Suzette Braaten, pausing to cock her head when a loaded truck rumbled past her business.

“He didn’t slow down,” she said with a disgusted shake of her head.

Braaten negotiated long and hard with the state Department of Transportation for the 55 mph signs intended to slow down the travelers rushing past — not to lure them into her business, but to protect her family and friends.

A passing vehicle was once clocked at 99 mph, Braaten said.

Just turning off the highway to take the Ludlow Road is dangerous, according to Carol Giannonatti, who teaches at the Ludlow School.

Giannonatti lives about three miles east of the school on the Ludlow Road. She’s also an emergency medical technician, as is her teaching assistant, Bryn Brown.

“We all carry a jump kit,” Giannonatti said, referring to the compact medical kits equipped with basic medical supplies.

There’s been a big uptick in emergency calls because of highway accidents the last three or four years, Giannonatti said.

“Friday nights and Sunday nights, especially,” Giannonatti said. That’s when oilfield workers race south for home at the end of a two-week shift. On Sunday night, the traffic reverses as workers return to the oil fields.

Often emergency responders wait an hour, or even two, for a state trooper to arrive at an accident scene, Giannonatti said. For the “locals,” the scarcity of troopers is a constant concern.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol has increased its presence in the northwestern corner of the state, said Sgt. Desmond Watson, who heads the squad assigned to the region. Two additional officers were added this spring because of the increasing activity.

“We have increased manpower over the last year to help address the additional traffic,” Watson said.

The squad’s coverage area extends north from Belle Fourche to the state line and east to McIntosh Corson County. Troopers are stationed at Belle Fourche, Lemmon and Faith.

“Most of the traffic is concentrated on U.S. 85,” Watson said.

The heavily loaded trucks hauling to North Dakota have destroyed nearly new roads in our neighboring state to the north, Watson said.

South Dakota has responded by adding additional motor carrier officers to enforce load weight and size limits. An additional mobile crew is stationed at Belle Fourche to improve enforcement.

Drugs and alcohol are also more common now along the northern route, Watson said. North Dakota and South Dakota law enforcement agencies work closely to address those problems.

Troopers are dealing with more traffic violations, but there are so many miles to cover.

“It’s just the nature of the beast. The more traffic you have, the more (problems) you’re going to have,” Watson said.

Many of those traveling the highway are unfamiliar with the road or weather conditions. They are bored, impatient and often fatigued, Watson said.

As a mother of four, Giannonatti never worried when her first three children set out on the 20-minute commute into Buffalo for high school.

Now, every day is a worry when her 17-year-old son leaves for school on U.S. 85.

“We’ve taught him to be a defensive driver,” Giannonatti said.

Not enough drivers observe the “double yellow” stripes warning them not to pass. Even turning off the highway requires special tactics — turn signals put on well in advance of the turn, a pull off onto the shoulder or a quick turn into the Crooked Creek parking lot for a straight shot at the intersecting road.

Giannonatti’s students are never outside unattended because of the traffic.

The traffic’s frantic ebb and flow makes it difficult for local ranchers who must move livestock and equipment, according to rancher Todd Anderson.

“It’s kind of a hazard,” Anderson said.

Anderson pulled off the highway near the Ludlow Fire Hall to confer with Hunter Kalisiak, the owner of Young Guns Construction. The men talked over the increasing hum of the mid-morning traffic.

“There’s a lot of disregard for safety; everyone’s in a hurry,” Anderson said. Drivers often pass on the “double yellow.” As they zip down the highway, those same drivers forget that farm equipment does not move at the same pace.

It’s downright “spooky” to be a volunteer firefighter trying to slow down some of that traffic, Anderson added.

But, there’s an upside to the oil boom, Anderson and Kalisiak admitted reluctantly. It’s a mixed bag of good and bad, the men said.

Anyone who has taken the plunge and leased mineral rights to oil companies has extra money to spend. Anderson, who does a little construction work on the side, sometimes works with Kalisiak on jobs they might not have otherwise.

“I build a lot for people who wouldn’t be getting a new shop or barn if they didn’t have something pumping,” Kalisiak said.

The North Dakota boom has also reduced the local competition in the construction business. Kalisiak’s eight-man crew was recently on a job in Rapid City.

And, although they never relax while driving U.S. 85, there are still open stretches where it’s safe to let your eyes wander to check the horns on the pronghorn antelope bucks chewing their cuds along the road.

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