From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 41 - October 11, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Jonah Field man camp awaiting BLM decision

by Alecia Warren

The sunrise reflected off the Big Piney man camp’s blue-and-white trimmed portable buildings, more like whitewashed boxcars than dormitories, at 7 a.m. last Thursday.

Leo Hernandez, 23, shuffled along the wooden boardwalk between the temporary facilities after returning from his night shift as a motor hand on the Jonah Field. A laborer for EnSign, a company contracted to run EnCana’s natural gas-powered rigs and which stations most of its men at the Big Piney camp, Hernandez stuffed his hands into his jean pockets to block out the icy wind and scrunched his shoulders into his Hoodie as he slowly tramped into the dining unit, where the kitchen crew had been serving breakfast since 3 a.m.

Other camps across the West can serve up to 700 men in two hours, but the Big Piney camp requires five hours to dole out biscuits and eggs to its 150 residents, who leave hours early for the 5 a.m. day shift and arrive hours after completing the night rotations, which end around the same time.

No one is pushing to add overtime to their shifts, but are forced to suspend normal digestion and sleep cycles to accommodate the commute between the camp and the Jonah Field, ranging from 45 minutes to well over an hour, depending on a crew’s placement on the field. The time window might not impress a suit who sits through rush hour every day on the way to a crowded metro bus stop. But exhaustion quickly takes its toll for workers like Hernandez, sporting red eyes from working seven days on the night shift and the following seven on the day shift, all the while nursing muscles aching from tripping pipe and running casing.

“It can be really tiring, especially after a 12-hour shift; we usually need to have two in a car minimum to keep each other awake,” Hernandez said of speeding down the narrow highway, unlit in the pre-dawn abyss but for the unblinking eyes of brake lights from the endless pickups roaring toward the camp like a speeding train. “It can get pretty dangerous if you let it.”

One of the floor hands who works under him, for instance, fell asleep on a handrail in front of a generator during the shift he had just finished.

And just six weeks ago, an employee’s pickup collided head-on with an 18-wheeler when the worker fell asleep at the wheel just down the road from the camp.

Hernandez stands as only one of many leary-eyed workers peppering his supervisors with one question: “When are we moving?” If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves EnCana’s recent proposal to haul the 12 structures of the Big Piney man camp to a 15-acre lot of BLM land in the Jonah Field, workers would shave their commutes from an hour to five minutes, and could punctuate half a day of work with a shower and hot meal, instead of dragging their weary bodies into pickups and struggling not to nod off on the road home.

Once the BLM decides after the end of the public commentary on Oct. 15, the man camp will hopefully relocate to an old well pad near the Bridger Pressure Station before the end of the year, depending on weather conditions.

The camp, now able to accommodate 240 workers, would undergo expansion to house up to 350, and would share the field with its oil rig neighbors for EnCana’s next 10 years of operations there. Eventually, the facilities would be carted off for workers to rest in on a field elsewhere in the country, and EnCana would reclaim the land as it does for all well pads.

Marvin Gideon, an EnSign equipment supervisor who has watched the traffic become “unrealistic” since he started working in southwestern Wyoming in 1989, agreed the move is long overdue.

“You’re looking at 250 to 350 traveling that road daily, morning and night,” Gideon said, including other contract workers for EnCana in his count who live in apartments and hotel rooms scattered across local towns like Kemmerer and Rock Springs. The sooner the facilities are built and heated before commuters face the first notorious Wyoming whiteout snowstorms that obstruct visibility like a curtain on the highway, he said, the better.

“(The new location) is for comfort and convenience, but it’s also for the safety of other people on the highway,” he said. Pinedale, though packed from housing oil and gas workers for other corporations, won’t see much change in its socioeconomic burdens once the man camp expands, predicted Caleb Hiner, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM, because the man camp will only house employees contracted by EnCana.

“To my understanding, it will be mainly providing (additional) facilities for those people who commute from Rock Springs and Evanston and Kemmerer who spend a couple hours driving on the highway,” Hiner said.

The first camp facility literally rolled into Big Piney on the backs of trucks a year and a half ago, with dorm rooms, a kitchen and small lounge for about 30 men.

Now several more facilities decorate the barren landscape like scattered Lego pieces, and in a way, that’s just what they are. Comprised of 10-by-40 foot units that fit together like segments of a caterpillar, the facilities squat on top of cement pillars that allow forklifts to tug them apart and slide them on trucks for transport down the highway. Although they look like flimsy mobile homes that a snowball could shatter, the structures are built to last, some already chalking up to 30 years of withstanding snow and mud across the countryside, some as far as Alaska.

Inside the plain white trailers lie long, dark hallways of rooms squeezed side-byside like compartments in a travel suitcase, each cubicle just big enough for a twin-sized cot and wood armoire. A recreation unit centered in between the dorm buildings offers large, cushioned leather recliners facing wide-screen TVs, a pallid laundry room and offices with a half-dozen wi-fi connected desktop computers. The dining facility holds a cafeteria complete with fully stocked kitchen, rows of tables and glass cases modeling rotating platters of fruit-stuffed pastries.

A small gym provides a slew of the newest models of cardio equipment.

Some might not appreciate EnCana’s provisos for the free room and board, like smoking and alcohol restrictions and the wait behind several others to shower after a long shift, but with the severe housing shortage in the local mining towns and the laborers’ permanent homes often states or even countries away, the single-serve amenities of the man camp remain an isolated option.

If EnCana does scoop up the 151 units of the crowded jigsaw puzzle of a city, workers like Hernandez will still need to train their bodies to sleep during the day, and live with the camp housekeeping crew that often rouses the dead-tired laborers during cleaning rotations.

And they’ll still struggle to keep their minds at the tasks at hand on the rigs, where they fight daydreams of a home that doesn’t come apart when corporations give the word and where they share rooms not with strangers but their families, like Hernandez’s wife, whom he counts the hours until his weeks off to visit in Wamsutter.

But at least the new location would allow them to collapse in bed to escape their troubles an hour sooner, without facing even more on one of the most exhaust-clogged and weather-beaten highways in the country, said Rick McMillan, owner of Arctic Catering, which provides food and cleaning services for the camp.

“These boys are already a long way from home,” McMillan said. “They need something nearby that’s warm, friendly and fuzzy.”

See The Archives for past articles.

Copyright © 2007 Pinedale Roundup
All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means must have permission of the Publisher.
Pinedale Roundup, PO Box 100, Pinedale, WY 82941   Phone 307-367-2123