Has the Permian Basin’s Oil Boom Created the Most Dangerous Border in America?

American citizens in Southern border towns aren’t at the most risk in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, or even El Paso, which shares a border with the most dangerous cities in Mexico. The most dangerous border towns in Texas don’t even touch Mexico; they brush up against the state of New Mexico.

The Permian Basin oil boom is driving the economy of small towns to heights they’re not prepared for, and the area’s infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the sudden increase in its population. As a continuous stream of workers flows through the Permian Basin, the area’s highways, housing, emergency services, and environmental air monitoring are not meeting the demand. Now, growth is occurring with little oversight throughout the region.

The Permian Basin: Rapid Growth for Small Cities

The increase in oil production in the Midland-Odessa area has created an influx of workers.

Small towns are experiencing the most radical changes. Carlsbad, New Mexico had a population of about 40,000 people just a few years ago. Now, rapid growth in the town’s economy has caused its population to nearly double to 75,000. The city is surrounded by RV parks to meet housing demands. Hotels that once lodged tourists for the Carlsbad Caverns now house temporary workers. Midland-Odessa’s population was just over 235,000 people as of the last census. Recent estimates place the population at over 350,000.

U.S. 285 connects the Midland-Odessa area and the New Mexico towns which dot the Permian Basin. The two-lane road has earned a very ominous name from the truckers who use it regularly: Death Highway. When travelers depart on this road, they part by wishing each well with the phrase “Stay alive on 285.”

In a comment to The Houston Chronicle, truck driver Joe Gomez revealed that he turns to the only thing that he can rely on when facing a trip down U.S. 285: prayer. The driver regularly sees accidents and has almost been in a few himself.

“It’s very dangerous out here, and it’s just getting worse and worse with the growth,” Gomez said. “A lot of people are getting killed when they’re not getting enough sleep and just trying to drive back home.”

The Problems of Rapid Growth

According to statistics collected by state and county officials, about 450 traffic fatalities occur annually throughout the New Mexico/Texas region in the Permian Basin. John Waters, the executive director of economic development for Carlsbad, acknowledges the difficult situation the city faces with its resources. However, he praises the economic growth that the Permian Basin’s boom has brought to Carlsbad.

“I would rather be fighting the problems of climbing up a mountain than falling off the other side,” Waters said. “We see ourselves as a young Midland. We’re not afraid of growth. We’re a lot like Texas.”

However, The Houston Chronicle found that not all residents are welcoming the region’s oil boom. A group of New Mexico citizens is speaking out against the rapid growth of small towns and cities. They argue that their growth is sending billions of dollars of revenue to the state while destroying highways, polluting the air, and placing residents in danger.

Rev. Dave Rogers is one of these concerned citizens. He told The Houston Chronicle that, “There’s this feeling that we’re in this sacrifice zone. I want to put gas in my car, but I don’t want to have to lose my life for the privilege.”

Other Issues with the Boom

We’ve reported on the struggle that Permian Basin towns and cities have been experiencing since the oil boom. In some counties, there were just four emergency responders in a 5,000 square-mile area.

Back in Carlsbad, some residents are finding themselves homeless because their finances weren’t prepared for the sudden increase in the area’s cost of living. Homes are quickly being snatched up by new residents before more are built. Oil workers are sleeping in cars until a room in a work camp—referred to by companies as lodges—becomes available.

Schools are expecting enrollment to soar from 6,400 students in 2017 to 8,000 as early as next year. Districts are building manufactured homes to hire and house much-needed teachers.

Penny Aucoin lives about 300 feet from a well; the minimum distance it’s required to be from her home. She blames pollution from the wells on her son’s frequent nosebleeds and has had two of her cars totaled in accidents related to increased traffic. Amongst the constant noise from her new neighbors, she hopes that life will return to as it was before the boom. If the boom doesn’t end, the very least she hopes for is the safety her family once enjoyed.

“Every time you hear an ambulance,” Aucoin said, “you wonder, ‘Is it one of the ones I love?’”

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