Study links crime rates to influx of temporary oil & gas workers

MT. EPHRAIM-The narrow dining room at RJ’s Cafe was awash in a sea of neon-clad diners Friday afternoon as busy waitresses scurried about bringing heaping piles of fries to the wall-to-wall lunchtime crowd.

As is the case often lately the small Noble County watering hole-with its adjacent convenience store and gas station-was packed tight as sardines with more than a dozen hungry oil and gas workers, their hefty diesel trucks parked in a similarly dense fashion outside.

A massive influx of industry workers in shale-busy counties like Noble, Monroe and Guernsey has been a blessing to businesses like RJ’s where the staff has increased four-fold to keep up since the oil boys started dining there.

But for some residents not reaping the boon of business, the oil and gas industry moving in has had some negative implications. From skyrocketing rent prices to dangerous roadways to out-of-state workers who make no mind of how they treat their temporary communities, there is some palpable tension between locals and the industry.

“Their attitudes are on another level. They come flying in like they don’t care,” said Cambridge resident Stephanie Dye in reference to the traveling workforce that has landed hard in Guernsey County.

The workforce has a bad reputation with some locals who see them as uninvested in the community.

Noble County resident Melissa Scott, 47, lives between four active wells near Batesville. If the constant noise isn’t enough to get under her skin, then all of the well workers are.

“They are nasty mouthed and the trash they leave all over the wells blows onto your property,” she said.

The attitudes toward the industry are not unique to Ohio. Industry towns from Pennsylvania to North Dakota are dealing with increased arrests and out-of-state workers who don’t bother showing up for court, according to an article by the Associated Press.

According to the article, alcohol and drug related arrests more than doubled in Sweetwater County, Wyo. in the eight-year period after its boom began in 2000.

In Williston, N.D., Police Captain Tom Ladwig was recruiting new officers from Minnesota and having them stay on couches, because he was hiring more officers than the town could house.

Ladwig’s problem highlights another reason local residents may be sour on the industry. The price of property and housing has driven out many local renters.

“The rent prices have gone through the roof,” said Woodsfield resident Alice Brown, 72.

Brown cited examples of apartments-simple two-bedroom outfits-that have jumped from around $400 to quadruple that in her area.

Two-bedroom apartments in the $1,500-to-$2,000 range seem believable in a metropolitan area like Columbus. It seems like a bad joke in Guernsey, Noble, and Monroe counties where the total combined population of the three counties is less than one-tenth the population of the state capital. But multiple residents have similar tales of rental sticker shock.

Cambridge resident Amy Sutton, 43, has a friend that turned his garage into a studio apartment which he rents for $2,200 a month. That’s great for him, but not so great for her friends on disability on the flip side of the problem, she said.

“I know specifically some people on disability getting kicked out so their landlords can double the rent,” said Sutton.

Other residents complain that local men and women are not getting the jobs. In fact they’re losing them.

“My grandson and his crew got run off,” said Sharon Siddle, from Marion Township in Noble County. “He’s a welder. This one company came in from out of town and ran them out of business.”

Senecaville resident Laura Conley experienced a similar incident in her family. Her son-in-law, who had a good job cleaning the mats placed at rigs, was replaced by a cheaper labor, said Conley, 52.

Some of the more than a dozen oil workers eating at RJ’s Friday afternoon said they were local, but they said little else. None in the room wanted to talk about the bad rap given to oil and gas workers. But co-owner Jerry Howell-the “J” in RJ’s-was quick to dispel rumors of misbehavior.

“The guys are very polite. They tip the girls great and they’re very respectful,” he said.

Howell said oil and gas industry bosses, who stop in as well, make sure their workers behave.

“If you have a problem, they say to tell them and they’ll take care of it,” he said.

Howell has not had to use that offer yet. The flux of oil and gas workers has meant he’s quadrupled his staff-from 6 to 24- and hired local help in doing so.

But talk of rowdy workers and an uptick in crime might can’t be wholly attributed to begrudging locals. A recent study found a possible statistical correlation between a rise in Utica permitting and an increase in certain traffic and crime metrics.

A report from FracTracker looked at the five-year rise in crime in the state as compared to the rise in the 10 counties with the most Utica permits. The report, culled from Ohio State Highway Patrol data, found that crash investigations, OVI arrests and drug violations increased at a faster rate in counties that have seen a lot of oil and gas traffic since the boom started in 2009.

In Noble County, where 93 Utica permits have been issued, felony arrests jumped by 87.7 percent between 2009 and the present, while statewide felony arrests increased by 17.4 percent in the same time frame.

Arrests for drunk driving, crash investigations, and commercial vehicle enforcement in Noble County also grew faster than the state average.

In Monroe County, crime has remained largely static for the past five years. But crash investigations have nearly doubled, rising by 97.4 percent compared to 6 percent statewide. At a 50.8 percent increase, commercial vehicle enforcement has also risen significantly over the state’s 2.8 percent increase.

The numbers point to traffic issues. Even with an increased presence from the state patrol, traffic infractions are keeping Caldwell’s part-time chief of police plenty busy.

Caldwell-which boasts zero bars-has not seen a lot of rowdy workers, just really fast ones, said Chief Paul McKahan.

“They’re in a hurry and they’re not paying attention. Basically, it’s just like a race track on (Interstate) 78,” said McKahan of his contact with the oil and gas workers.

Residents echoed that they often do not feel safe on the roads.

“It causes more accidents. I see them on (Ohio) 7 all the time. Those water trucks, they drive too fast,” said Woodsfield resident David Pedelose, 52, referring to the brine hauling trucks that go hand-in-hand with horizontal drilling sites.

But besides their lead feet, McKahan has little complaints about industry workers.

“Some of these oil and gas guys do obey the laws. There are a lot of good ones. When I pull them over, they’re always very respectful to me. Unfortunately what little of the bad people come in makes a name for them all,” he said.

Caldwell Mayor David Evans was also positive about the effects of the industry workers.

“Overall it’s been a positive thing. They frequent our restaurants. They buy gas here,” he said.

In Washington County, which is a relative newcomer to the oil boom, resisting arrest charges increased by 52.7 percent in the five-year study period.

There was a spike in arrests of out-of-state oil workers about a year ago, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite, but it has largely died down since.

“We had a run there where we were arresting a lot of people from Oklahoma and other states that were working for the oil and gas industry. Usually it was drunk driving, drunk and disorderly. I haven’t seen so much of that lately,” he said.