IMAGE: THRIFT STORE OWNERS
Andy Randall  /  AP
Energy-fueled growth in Rock Springs, Wyo., means more clients for Vern and Betty Peterson, who run a thrift store that helps people just getting on their feet.
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updated 3/4/2006 4:38:48 PM ET 2006-03-04T21:38:48

The daycare center at the YWCA is full of children these days and has a list of more than 60 children waiting to get in. At the same time, the number of people using the YWCA’s safehouse for domestic violence and sexual assault victims has risen 59 percent over a year’s time.

The YWCA of Sweetwater County and other social service organizations are seeing the effects — good and bad — of Wyoming’s booming energy industry.

The energized oil, gas and mining industry has meant plentiful and well paying jobs, a bustling economy and a state — known more for its aboveground natural resources in Yellowstone National Park and Devils Tower — awash in revenue to the tune of a $1.8 billion budget surplus. Conversely, it has resulted in jobs outside the energy industry becoming hard to fill, more crime and more demands on the already thin health care and social services systems. It’s a scenario playing out elsewhere in Wyoming and the West where there is heavy energy development.

So far government agencies, police departments and social service organizations are handling most of the basic social needs and problems associated with the boom. Sweetwater County is just one of eight counties in Wyoming experiencing large-scale energy development.

‘Promised land’ with problems
Rock Springs, a city built among high desert bluffs and hills of mineral rich southwest Wyoming, has managed to maintain its small-town, can-do attitude in dealing with being transformed from a hardscrabble mining community into a vibrant center of oil and gas activity.

But local officials and social service agencies say they are struggling to keep up with a growing workload at a time when they are losing employees to higher paying oil and gas jobs.

“This is the promised land now, but we don’t have the housing and we don’t have the resources,” Rock Springs Police Chief Mike Lowell said during a recent meeting of local police chiefs in Cruel Jacks Restaurant.

To help the counties most affected by the energy boom, Gov. Dave Freudenthal has proposed setting aside $100 million in grant money for infrastructure improvements. And state lawmakers are considering legislation that would increase access to mental health services and subsidize day-care.

Sitting on some of the richest natural gas deposits in the world, Wyoming is a hotbed of exploration, drilling and pipeline building. And all indications are that this is just the beginning. BP America Inc. plans to invest more than $2.2 billion over 15 years drilling natural gas wells in the south-central Wyoming.

“It brings a lot of new business and progress,” lifelong Rock Springs resident Betty Petersen, a volunteer at a church-supported thrift store in the oldest block of downtown Rock Springs, said. “But it brings some bad things.”

Meeting basic needs
There’s more demand for help with basic needs such as finding work clothing, food, a place to stay, medical care and child care. There’s also more crime.

“Anytime you have quick growth in the economy, it brings with it a variety of social problems — drug use, alcohol abuse, child abuse,” said Rodger McDaniel, director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services.

The Food Bank of Sweetwater County provided food assistance to 143 households of oil and gas workers over a one-year period in 2004 and 2005 — up from 72 the previous year. Crisis calls to the YWCA in Rock Springs increased from 1,511 from July to December in 2004 to 2,351 during the same six-month period in 2005.

The number of crimes in Sweetwater County increased 11 percent between 2002 and 2004.

“These people work hard and play hard,” said Sweetwater County Sheriff David Gray.

Sweetwater being swamped
Settled in the 1860s around a trading post, Rock Springs evolved into a livestock shipping point and mining town in Sweetwater County, a vast expanse that’s larger than New Jersey and Delaware combined. Now, Rock Springs, the largest of six incorporated communities within Sweetwater County with about 19,000 residents, is the center of a large natural gas development in southwestern Wyoming.

Sweetwater County produced enough gas in 2004 to heat nearly all households in Chicago for a year. There is so much activity oil and gas companies are forced to bring in crews from out of state to man the rigs and work the fields, according to Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

No one knows for sure how many workers have come from out of state, but the small Sweetwater County community of Wamsutter has seen its population grow from 247 people to about 1,200 in two years.

Amanda Rosenberg, executive director of United Way of Sweetwater County, said the greatest need occurs in the first two weeks between when someone starts a job and receives their first paycheck.

“It’s a very tight time for them,” Rosenberg said. “We even had agencies help individuals find a pair of steel-toed boots so they can go to work.”

One plus: Fewer food stamps
With plentiful jobs, the number of people needing long-term food stamps assistance has dropped, according to Pauline Carpenter, who supervisors food stamps, cash assistance and other benefits for the state Department of Family Services office in Rock Springs.

However, Carpenter said there is greater demand for medical assistance because company-supplied health care doesn’t start right away for new workers.

The medical care that is available is “stressed quite to the max” in Wyoming, a rural state where it’s always a challenge to recruit health care professionals and provide medical care to far-flung oil and gas fields, said Dr. Brent Sherard, director of the state Health Department.

“I think the energy boom has and will create more problems with access to health care,” Sherard said.

Another major problem is the lack of child care, especially for parents working odd hours in oil and gas fields that operate around the clock.

The YWCA isn’t meeting the daycare demand because it can’t find enough employees, said Christie DeGrendele, executive director. “It’s the one area where we can’t provide services to those requesting it,” she said.

All social service organizations and local police agencies reported difficulty finding workers because they can’t compete against oil and gas jobs that offer $20 an hour or more.

Meantime, the workload is increasing.

“The troopers in this area are just running from call to call to call,” said Capt. Dave Cunningham, state Highway Patrol district supervisor in Rock Springs.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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