Oil riches call Wisconsin worker to leave family behind for work in Williston

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2013 - 11:22 PM

Workers powering North Dakota’s bonanza lead split lives, commuting from afar as loved ones stay home.

It’s been a long day for Andrew Klefstad. And a long four years.

At dawn, he coaxed milk from the cows in his father Roger’s barn below a pink and turquoise sunrise and lush green hillsides near Ridgeland, Wis. Then he went back to work, restoring the century-old farmhouse that will soon become his young family’s home.

Now it’s 11 p.m., and his wife, Tiffany, is reaching up to wrap her arms around his neck, kissing him goodbye after a 90-mile drive from the farm to the Amtrak depot in St. Paul.

A duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Klefstad searches for a seat. More than 54,000 passengers last year rode this 12-hour, overnight train to the Bakken oil fields near Williston — more than doubling the passenger volume since North Dakota’s latest oil boom began.

A bear of a guy at 6 foot 5 and 290 pounds, Klefstad puts in his earbuds and pulls his brimmed cap over his eyes. He’s out cold before the train cuts through the darkness west of Minneapolis, falling asleep to the songs of Blink-182.

Thick arms, festooned with angel tattoos, crisscross his chest. A tiny beaded bracelet clings to his wrist. His 7-year-old son, Kelvin, made it with yellow and black beads, spelling out D-A-D amid Xs and Os, and sent it to him in Williston with a letter pleading: “Come home, Dad.”

“I was like four days away from coming home,” Klefstad recalled later. “I just started bawling.”

Klefstad’s westward train was hurtling toward a landscape like nothing America has seen for decades: Once-sleepy prairie towns now teem with high-paying jobs from a runaway economy rising up amid its lowing cattle and treeless hills.

He’s part of a huge army of migrants, mostly young men, now pouring into these sparse plains where the science of hydraulic fracturing has jump-started the global energy game. Fracking is unleashing billions of barrels of oil no longer trapped 2 miles deep in North Dakota’s shale.

Like gold prospectors bound for California in 1849 and their Dust Bowl descendants who followed during the Depression, or waves of rural, Southern blacks flocking northward to industrial Chicago and Detroit after World War II, today’s modern migration is epic.

But it’s also different. Klefstad and his ilk aren’t packing up their families to escape tough times and search out new opportunity. They’re part of a swinging-door, here-today, home-next-month turnstile migration.

And amid the back-and-forth lurching, Andrew Klefstad is grappling with a hard truth: This modern-day gold rush comes with golden handcuffs.

Like so many fortune seekers out here, the recession left him scrambling to find work five years ago. His father couldn’t afford to pay him back on the dairy farm. Business had dried up for the industrial cleanup company he worked for in Cannon Falls, Minn.

So he lit out for North Dakota. Halliburton, the global energy industry giant, put him right to work. Now, at only 28 with no college degree, he’s earning more than $100,000 a year as the general manager of Mirror Image Environmental Services. He’s cleaning up spills and washing tons of sludge off the countless trucks pounding down the red-clay roads that connect the drilling rigs, nodding wells, railheads and gas flares that riddle western North Dakota.

Klefstad spends three weeks working sunup to sundown, then gets back on the train for a week with Tiffany, Kelvin and daughter Avery in Wisconsin. The brutal-but-profitable lifestyle leaves legions of workers juggling split lives of long hours and dislocating separation.

Klefstad insists he’s out here only until the loans are paid off. His goal is to be debt-free by 40, if not sooner, something his father laughs about back on the farm.

“I have more debt now than I did at 25,” says Roger, 63.

Since Klefstad began crawling into frac trucks to scour off chemicals, he has helped build his company into a player among the companies cleaning up the Bakken. He’s also become a Fagin of sorts from the “Oliver Twist” story — overseeing more than a dozen kids working for him. Most are right out of high schools in Montana and Wisconsin.

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    Friday October 25, 2013

    Andrew Klefstad, 28, is the general manager of an environmental company that cleans up frac gel-spills and scrubs sludge...

  • Tiffany Klefstad drove her husband, Andrew, 90 miles from home in Wisconsin to the Amtrak station in St. Paul so he could head to work in North Dakota.

  • Caked with sludge, Klefstad climbed out of a truck wash pit. He earns more than $100,000 a year for the gritty work.

  • Andrew Klefstad, 28, works around the clock for three weeks in North Dakota and then spends a week in Wisconsin in a farmhouse he’s restoring with his wife, Tiffany, and their children, Avery and Kelvin.

  • Andrew left for North Dakota in the midst of the recession. His father, Roger, couldn’t pay him for work on their Wisconsin dairy farm.

  • When not on the job from sunup to sundown, Klefstad and his crew spent much of the year in a house rented by his company for $8,000 a month in Williston.

  • “You come out … caked with soot and mud, but if you love to work hard, you can make good money doing this,” Klefstad said.

  • Since he started cleaning up the Bakken four years ago, Klefstad is in such demand that he knows “it will be hard to leave.”

  • Trucks, like the one raising this cloud of dust near Watford City, constantly pound the roads across North Dakota’s oil fields.

  • Klefstad waited in St. Paul to make the 12-hour Amtrak ride west. On the days he’s scheduled to leave, he can feel a weight on his chest.

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