Brian Cummins has been mayor of Fairview, Montana, for so long that when you ask him about the oil boom he replies, “Which one?” The first one he remembers occurred in the early 1980s, just before he became mayor of this tiny town. The second is still going, though it’s slowed in recent years. Even a diminished boom has created trouble for Cummins and his town.
Fairview sits on the Montana-North Dakota border, and its problems are tied to that invisible state line. While most of the recent boom’s oil originated in North Dakota — and most of its tax revenue stayed there, too — the oil workers spread across the region, looking for places to live. Fairview more than doubled in population, from 840 to about 1,800, and it struggled to house and feed those newcomers. (“You’d better be at the store when the milk truck comes in,” Cummins recalled, “or you weren’t getting any milk.”) Even now, with the population back around 1,000, the town remains in a precarious spot. Fairview’s sewage lagoon is close to capacity; most of its streets need repairs. Worst of all, there is serious wear and tear on the town’s pipes from supplying water to the companies doing the fracking, a process that requires pumping a lot of liquid below ground.
In particular, Cummins frets about the long stretches of cast iron water pipes that date to 1935. If one of the pipes leaks, especially in the middle of Montana’s winter, it’s a disaster. “It costs me $30,000 every time one breaks, especially when it’s 30 or 40 below,” Cummins said. “And it seems like that’s always when they want to fracture.”
Fairview can’t afford the estimated $1.3 million it would take to fix the cast iron pipes. The …