Energy boom brings challenges to Baggs

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— Hardly anyone denies that an energy boom near this Wyoming border town is taking its toll. Some say they have noticed an increase in traffic heading north and south through town on Wyoming State Highway 789, or heading east and west on State Highway 70 with traffic from Riverside and other south central Wyoming towns.

Baggs' two motels that typically report a handful of travelers have lately been booked with up to 30 guests. Others easily can pinpoint new faces in the tight-knit town with a population of less than 400.

But since he took a job with the Baggs Police Department this summer, the town's police chief and one-man force, Mark Lapinskas, has charted an increase in crime, which he has no reason to believe will scale back any time soon.

At least seven major oil companies have submitted proposals to drill 592 new gas wells at Desolation Flats, an area 14 miles west of Baggs. Energy exploration at the rate of about two wells per 640 acres is slated for the next 20 years on current leases in the Desolation Flats Project Area, according to a filing by the Environmental Protection Agency.

It's the transient type of workers that oil and gas exploration and development tend to bring with it that makes Lapinskas nervous about keeping safe the small town that he calls his "own slice of heaven."

"It's hard to get a family guy to work on an oil rig," Lapinskas said. "They work hard, they play hard. The kind of people who come to work here are rough."

Calls for police service and the number of cases have almost doubled in the past year, Lapinskas reported. Ten months ago, soon after the department started tracking its call loads, Baggs police received 20 calls for service and had reported four cases under investigation. Also, last February, the department reported no callouts, or calls that police responded to that didn't require action or follow-up. November, however, reported 36 calls for police service, with 10 cases under investigation and 15 call outs.

"You've got to expect it when you have a transient population," he said. "It's a whole different attitude. I just want to look at it proactively."

Lapinskas said he was considering asking town council members to fund another officer position, but halted that request after learning about the city's expensive and state-mandated plans to invest in a water treatment upgrade.

But some oil companies evidently are aware of the potential impact that an influx of energy workers could have on a small town such as Baggs. In 2004, the department received the equivalent of almost $40,000 in grant money and donations, almost half of which came from energy companies. The Baggs Police Department is budgeted for about $5,000 a year for operating costs, excluding salary, Lapinskas said.

Devon Energy donated a 2002 Chevy Silverado four-wheel drive pickup that the department will use to replace its one police sedan. Merit Energy donated $3,000 that the department will use to outfit the truck, Lapinskas said. Donations from other companies such as Wal-Mart and State Farm Insurance will go toward outfitting the department with video surveillance for the police vehicle, ballistic or bulletproof vests and a portable radio.

Still, town council members don't seem to be worried about what an increase in the energy business could mean to their small town. Four of the five town council members are or have been employed with an energy company working in the area, they said.

More localized energy development could open up high-paying jobs for residents, said Mayor Bernie Caracena, who works for Devon Energy.

Caracena said his company recently hired two men from Baggs, ages 20 and 21.

"Wyoming has a lot of retail jobs but they don't pay much," he said. "There are a lot of entry-level opportunities (in energy) that offer a livable wage. It's good to have more jobs, though I don't know if we have the housing to support it."

Council member Jim McConahay said the energy boom probably would influence Baggs, but it would be on a fluctuating basis as the drilling and exploration tend to slow down in the winter months.

He did note that the town's trailer park has recently been filled with residents, reversing a longtime trend. Still, he thought that energy companies would work to offset their impact near towns they drill.

"I think in every place that energy companies are a major player they are very conscientious," he said.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com

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