The “BOOM” in Rural Population Growth

The town of Midwest, Natrona County, Wyoming. At one time this building was the a hotel, before it became a Mason’s lodge. Now it sits abandoned on a bluff overlooking the town’s football field and two blocks from the local school where a gas leak shut down the only school for 40 miles. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

The kids could smell it as the town’s school filled with gases 20 to 200 times the recommended levels. Midwest, Natrona County, Wyoming, 2016.

While most of rural America is facing a population decline of epic proportions, some of the northern mountain and plains states are seeing a big population increase. For example in a couple of years over the last decade North Dakota has been the fastest growing state, if not finishing in the top 5.

While Wyoming hasn’t seen the double digit growth of North Dakota, it has grown and some of that can be linked to oil and gas mining in the state. One of the side effects of population growth in an area that was already hard hit by declines, is the lack of housing and infrastructure. While there may be plenty of houses in a town the conditions of many have become unlivable and local schools and retail have long since closed.

There have been plenty of stories about men who have moved to work on wells, hoping to bring their families with them, but not being able to find suitable housing, schools, or local resources, rely on living in trailers while sending money home.

Municipalities, if they are still even incorporated are left scrambling to find a way to accommodate new residents, while also wondering how long the boom will last and if those accommodations will be well spent money. Essentially bankrupting city coffers when they build a new school, only to see the new residents move when the wells shut down. So like with many ballooning areas, there’s always a fear of a bust.

Midwest, Wyoming however isn’t one of those towns, but does echo a another growing concern to the rural lives surrounded with the increase in oil & gas extraction. Could this “Boom” actually explode and destroy our town?

While there have been cases of actual explosions from pipelines, or wells, the most common concern in towns like this is, “what will life be like when the wells run dry?” However, deep in the background many think, “what becomes of the town if there’s a disaster?” America has a few towns that are now unlivable thanks to mining disasters.

Midwest, Wyoming got a small taste of that second question in 2016 when an abandoned gas well sent gas into the local school, shutting it down. I first became aware of the story after visiting Midwest in August of 2016 and talking with a local resident about the town.

She said that gas had been leaking into the school and some of the kids were getting sick. The end results being the school was completely closed off and the children had to finish their year at the next closest school, 42 miles away in Casper.

As with many towns I visit, I did some searching later on to see what became of the school in Midwest. It appears the school was closed for an entire year and a half after it evacuated, as state and federal agencies looked into the cause and solution for the problem. The company who had run the well before shutting it down paid to fix the problem.

According to reporting from a special PBS/NPR group Inside Energy, CO2 levels in the school were 20 times the recommended levels. Also present was benzene, which can cause cancer, was 200 times acceptable levels.

A great story from the Casper Star Tribune about the return to the Midwest school can be read here. You can also listen or read the initial story about the closing of Midwest school from Inside Energy here.

The fate of Midwest & other mining towns

Eventually the wells will run dry and besides thinking about what that means to the local economy, one has to look at the very likely possibilities that the companies who ran them may no longer be in business the next time one leaks. But if there are no wells left around Midwest, will the town still have a reason to exist.

The fate of Midwest is still uncertain. The town of of just under 400 has shrunk by almost half since 1980, and while that pace has slowed (estimated at -2.2% since 2010) almost of third of the remaining population lives at or below the poverty line.

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