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Gas Boom Burdens Small Town

Energy: The state is reaping a $695-million surplus. Mile-square village is getting more folks than it can handle.


WAMSUTTER, Wyo. — Bob Ferguson took a hard pull on his umpteenth filter tip of the day and squinted across the dirt road and past the rows of double-wides. His eyes fell on the low-slung cluster of tidy beige buildings that comprise the town's elementary school.

"Built in the last boom," the mayor said, exhaling smoke and smiling.

Now, Wamsutter is a month into another economic boom, courtesy of a frenzy of drilling for natural gas here and across the state. And the school that gas built might soon be bulging at the seams with the children of gas workers.

With Wyoming poised to overtake Texas as the nation's largest producer of natural gas, the towns and hamlets in the midst of the gas fields are girding for another in a series of explosive growth spurts that have become the natural rhythm of the state's boom-and-bust cycle. The state budget, fat with taxes and royalties from oil and gas, boasts a $695-million surplus.

But for the small towns, the landscape is markedly different. Few seem to be reaping the windfall. And the mayor of Wamsutter is worried about everything from the school to the sewer and water systems to rowdy gas workers disrupting the town's quiet lifestyle.

Though it has long been surrounded by oil and gas fields, Wamsutter--smack in southwestern Wyoming's Red Desert--is also home to sand dunes, acres of rocks and prodigious herds of elk and antelope. The tiny mile-square town is near Interstate 80, a busy transportation corridor filled with big rigs and tourists rushing elsewhere.

The community of fewer than 500 people is in the center of the drilling. Approval has been given for more than 2,000 new wells on a million nearby acres. But, rather than jumping for joy at the potential income to the town, city officials are busy calculating what the influx of trucks and workers will cost them.

Towns like this one can expect to double or triple in size with the arrival of gas field workers and their families. Few have sewers, roads or a water supply able to support such rapid growth. And, unlike the state or counties, which receive property taxes and other income from the industry, small towns just see a modest infusion from sales taxes.

In a town as small as Wamsutter, said David Black, a senior economist for the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis, even a modest influx of workers can overwhelm city services. Black said that the tax structure benefits the state more than municipalities so that when boom times come, local benefits are few.

"You have growth your infrastructure simply can't handle," he said.

These days, when Ferguson looks out from under the brim of his straw cowboy hat, he sees problems and potential problems: Wamsutter's population has already doubled from a year ago to nearly 500, and the drilling has only just begun. Desert School, which had 61 students last year, is sure to see an increase in enrollment in the fall but no one has any idea of how much. There is no more available housing for the 600 workers who have arrived in the area, and nearly every dusty lot in town is occupied with trailers and motor homes.

"Water, streets and sewers, that's what I'm concerned about," Ferguson said, steering his pickup truck during a town tour. "The more demand you have on the town, the more demand you'll have on the sewer lines. The more people you have on your streets, the worse condition your streets are in."

Before drilling began in May, Wamsutter commissioned a study that projected the total cost of the boom's effect on the town at $9.6 million. Major capital improvements included upgrading the town's sewage and water systems, paving roads and adding a police officer. This, for a town with an annual budget of $220,000.

This is not a region accustomed to crowds or sudden movement.

There are three gas stations, two cafes, two small hotels, one church and a hair salon. Most of those places are busy. For everything else--a doctor, a supermarket or a video store--residents must drive 40 miles east to Rawlins or 70 miles west to Rock Springs.

It's a lifestyle that people here enjoy. Or used to.

Once quiet and peaceful, Wamsutter is a town where doors are left unlocked and truck keys are left in the ignition. Now it is filled with strangers and often rough oil field workers who jam the lone bar at night.

"Basically, the oil people are good, hard-working people," Ferguson said, straining to be fair. "But you can get some real stinkers."

Some residents are almost at the point of locking up the young women in town. Karen Smith owns Wamsutter Cutters, the only beauty parlor. Conversations in her shop tend to turn to the gas fields, the money and the men. Smith counsels young girls to turn a deaf ear to the flirting they may hear from lonely workers.

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