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At a time when much of the U.S. was still suffering through the aftermath of the recession, there was one unlikely place on the map where business was booming.

On the flat prairie 60 miles south of the Canadian border, Williston, North Dakota, was exploding. Underemployed and out of work Americans, stricken with black gold fever, rushed to the dusty town in search of the vanishing American Dream. They came chasing six-figure jobs in oil fields experiencing a revival thanks to advancements in fracking, a controversial hydraulic drilling method using a combination of sand, water and chemicals to fracture rock in pursuit of otherwise unreachable oil reserves.

Santa Rosa writer Blaire Briody discovered a dark side to the dream when she hitched a trailer to her 1999 Chevy Metro hatchback and headed east in the summer of 2013 to immerse herself in this new American boomtown, described by one of the people she came to know, as “a wide spot in the road with a Walmart.”

Between 2010 and 2016 the population of tiny Williston swelled by nearly 80 percent. The result was a severe housing shortage, skyrocketing real estate prices, an increase in violence and sexual assault, a disturbing job fatality rate more than five times the national average, and scores of pollutants unleashed downwind from flaring operations.

Briody, 33, writes about what happened to this small farm town in her recent book “The New Wild West” ($27.99, St. Martin’s Press), a work of narrative nonfiction. For a summer she lived in a bleak campground that served as the Williston equivalent of middle class housing for oil field workers making up to $40 an hour (with overtime and per diem bonuses, the average annual salary of an oil field worker in North Dakota rose to $112,462 in 2012.

“I was working as a senior editor at the Fiscal Times and covering a lot of the recession. I read about all of these workers coming to Williston and sleeping in a Walmart parking lot,” said Briody of that stirring of intrigue that led to her to leave her job in New York City to find out what was going on North Dakota.

“They had jobs. It seemed different than all these other places in the country I had been covering. It reminded me of The Gold Rush and westward migration. And at the time, very few people were covering what was going on. I thought there was an opportunity to invest some more in-depth time to get on-the-ground stories and perspective,” she said.

The oil boom set off by fracking over the past decade has turned the U.S. into the world’s largest crude oil producer, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia; 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the U.S. use hydraulic fracturing.

But there is a human and environmental price that comes with all that liquid gold.

Oil workers receive almost no training and work long hours in extreme weather conditions. Briody tells the story of Cindy Marchello, a fiftysomething grandmother who becomes the only woman on a fracking crew that regularly clocked 120 hours a week. Eighty five percent of oil industry jobs are held by men, and the crew ate and slept — often just catnaps — at the well.

Sleep deprivation mixed with the inherent danger of the work resulted in North Dakota becoming the most dangerous state to work in by 2011. Briody said between 2011 and 2015 only five to eight OSHA field inspectors were deployed to western North Dakota for all businesses. Doing the math, she said it would take 126 years for a team that size to inspect each workplace in North Dakota even once. Workers compensation claims quadrupled. She said companies often rewarded workers for low injury rates and offered incentives not to report accidents or incidents.

That, she said, was the most disturbing thing she discovered in interviews with women, including Marchello. Through “all the harrowing experiences she went through on her work site, including being attacked in her truck by a co-worker,” Briody said, “she feared for her life. It was really very shocking.”

Marchello became Briody’s guide, helping her navigate a manscape that could be menacing.

Briody grew up in the small town of Mount Shasta, and studied international relations at laid-back UC Davis. But that didn’t prepare her for the rough and ready Williston. She was repeatedly warned it wasn’t safe for a 29-year-old woman.

“I’d seen more traffic, dust, and heavy industry than in any major metropolitan city I’d visited — in a state that, a mere three years before, had the third-lowest population in the United States,” she writes.

Briody drills into the sociological, economic, political and environmental consequences of fracking through the stories of five different people she meets. In addition to Marchello, she follows a homeless man hoping for a chance in Williston, a young mother who, like the pioneer women who came to the Dakotas in the 19th century, tries to carve out a semblance of civility and a pastor who tries to maintain a family and community in a place spinning out of control.

And there is Donny Nelson, whose family farm has been overtaken by 25 new oil wells, an onslaught he is powerless to stop.

In most states, Briody says, mineral rights and surface rights, are sold together. But in North Dakota, the mineral rights have been severed from the land, often sold off cheaply long ago by poor farmers desperate for cash. Oil rights trump the rights of the landowners, who get none of the profits despite dealing with possible contaminated soil and water, dust, truck traffic and a skyline filled with oil rigs.

Among the stories she weaves into the narrative is a portrait of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, north of Williston, which was sold to oil interests by tribal chairman Tex Hall, who promoted it as a ticket out of poverty. But the riches were unevenly felt and funds, some alleged, were mismanaged and spent on things like $2.5 million yacht that sat unused.

“A lot of them were very active in the Standing Rock Pipeline protests. They said what happened on their reservation is a cautionary tale for other reservations — this is what can happen when you allow oil companies on your reservation. Standing Rock took that advice very seriously and did everything they could to stop it.”

While she was doing her research, Briody paid $800 a month to park her tiny pop-up camper on hard cracked soil with a view of a gas station and no laundry or shower facilities.

“There just wasn’t a blade of grass anywhere in sight, just all dust and dirt,” she said. A one-bedroom apartment in Williston went for $2,000 a month.

In her research, Briody unearthed some disturbing facts

Oil companies in North Dakota burn away about 1/5 to 1/3 of the natural gas they’re extracting, emitting the carbon dioxide equivalent of a million cars.

More than 60 types of pollutants have been identified downwind from flaring operations, including benzene, methaneand butane, many of which have been associated with cancer, birth defects and organ damage.

Researchers found that public drinking water systems for more than 8.6 million people in the Untied States are located with a mile of at least one fracked well.

Briody, who moved to Santa Rosa with her partner, a doctor in the residency program at Sutter Hospital, said what surprises her the most about her research is how little people have followed the resurgence of the U.S. oil industry. A recent slump in oil prices however, has led to job losses and people who are still employed being asked to do more for less.

She returned in 2015 to Williston, it felt different. A slump in oil prices had led to job losses, and remaining workers being forced to pick up the slack.

“It had this eerie feeling, like the city had overbuilt,” she said. “Talking to a lot of the locals, they were waiting and hoping it would come back, that prices would go back up and people would be rehired.” That contributed to the state voting overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016.

“People consider this North Dakota flyover country,” she said. “They were feeling very ignored by the rest of the country. I heard from some of the people out there who liked that he was a businessman. They thought he was someone who could bring jobs and growth.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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