Friday August 01, 2014

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    US, Canada bracing for spike in crime from Northern Plains oil boom

    GLASGOW, Mont. - Booming oil production across a wide expanse of the U.S.-Canada border has prompted law enforcement officials in both countries to brace themselves for a spike in crimes ranging from drug trafficking and gun offences to prostitution.

    Officials say up to 30,000 workers could descend on the Bakken oil fields of Montana, North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan in the next few years. The rural region is emerging as one of the top oil producing areas of North America.

    The recent kidnapping and brutal murder of Montana-based teacher Sherry Arnold has drawn more attention to the changes brought on by the rapid pace of drilling.

    Federal prosecutors are holding a two-day retreat beginning Monday for police, border agents and other law enforcement to craft a common strategy to deal with rising crime.

    "The population flux will naturally bring increased criminal activity to the area," said U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter. "It is imperative that our law enforcement establish open lines of communication between each other to ensure they are as responsive as possible."

    In eastern Montana, drug crimes are up 172 per cent. Assaults in Dickinson, N.D., have climbed 300 per cent. And in once-sleepy Plentywood, Mont., there have been three gun crimes in the past few months a prospect previously unheard of in the tiny community tucked against the Canada border.

    The RCMP has sent several officers who work in enforcement, intelligence and border security to the conference. Sgt. Paul Dawson said everyone in the region is going through similar problems.

    "One of the things that we're seeing that sometimes a lot people don't always think of when they think of boom towns or oil towns is an increase in driving offences _ impaired driving, aggressive driving as well as fatals," said Dawson.

    Dawson said the increase in oil and gas activity in southern Saskatchewan is a factor.

    "Any time you get an increase in population there's more people on the roads," said Dawson.

    "You've got a transient workforce, generally a very young workforce earning high wages. So it would stand to reason that you are going to see an increase in policing issues when you have that as your environment, and we want to be able to properly address it."

    The RCMP is in the process of setting up a dedicated six person traffic unit out of Estevan, Sask. _ which has become an oil hub.

    In the nearby city of Weyburn, Sask., police chief Marlo Pritchard said there's been phenomenal growth and a rapid increase in population since 2007, about the time the boom started.

    But crime numbers went up too.

    Pritchard said the crime rate for Weyburn increased 46.7 per cent between 2001 and 2010. The spike started roughly in 2007, he said.

    "There has been a big increase in drug activity and impaired driving and assaults, the violent assaults. But that's got to do with the, I believe, got to do with the more transient population that comes in to work in these oilfields," said Pritchard.

    Pritchard, who spent 30 years in Regina before becoming the chief in Weyburn on March 1, said it's a regional concern.

    "It's not Weyburn and Estevan's got the same issues. It's definitely right now in the southeast part of the province, but I think you'll see that expand into Regina. I mean, you've got the potash mines that are going up all over Regina. (There's) growth in a lot of different areas in Saskatchewan right now."

    Pritchard said dealing with the problem involves resources, either more officers or deploying officers in a different way.

    In communities in North Dakota, assaults, traffic offences and other crimes are on the rise as drilling accelerates to meet the U.S.'s appetite for domestic fuels. The situation is exacerbated by a housing shortage that is spurring the construction of sprawling "man-camps" that can accommodate hundreds of out-of-state oil workers.

    Government officials say the boom could last another decade or more as companies tap into a reserve estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to hold more than four billion barrels of crude.

    The suspects in Arnold's killing 48-year-old Lester Van Water and 22-year-old Michael Spell, allegedly travelled to the Bakken from Colorado in search of work. Court records allege Spell and Waters had been smoking crack cocaine and were living out of Waters' vehicle when Arnold was snatched off a Sidney street.

    Industry representatives say companies go to lengths to ensure the workers they hire won't cause trouble either on the job or in the community.

    Drug tests and background checks are standard for many companies, said Kari Cutting with North Dakota Petroleum Council. She added that the lack of housing can quickly deter would-be workers who show up without a position already secured.

    "The fact is that neither of the gentleman involved in that unfortunate crime were involved in the oil industry," Cutting said. "We do know there are challenges. Any opportunity has challenges that need to be overcome, and we want to be part of the solution in all this."

    _ With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina


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