BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota counties that produce either coal or crude oil held seven of the top 10 spots in a statewide survey of average annual wages.
The counties that have lignite mining, power plants or oil have some of the best-paid workers in the state, Job Service North Dakota research analyst Michael Ziesch said Wednesday.
"Those are the powerful, high-paying jobs," he said.
Job Service figures show coal-rich Oliver County in west-central North Dakota retook first place in the study of average annual wages in 2009 among North Dakota's 53 counties. Sparsely populated Slope County, which had held the top spot because of a spike in oil development, slid to No. 3.
Statewide, the average annual wage last year was listed at $35,970, up from $35,075 in 2008 and $33,086 in 2007. Fourteen counties topped the statewide average last year, the same as 2008.
Oliver County, home to BNI Coal's Center Mine and Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton R. Young Station, ranked first last year. The average annual wage rose to $60,202 from $50,403 in 2008.
The report lists Oliver County's average number of workers at 827 last year, up from 679 in 2008.
Job Service figures show Oliver County had ranked at the top of North Dakota wage surveys since at least 1993 but was surpassed in 2008 by Slope County, in the state's southwest corner. Ziesch said oil activity in Slope County since about 2004 has lifted it from near the bottom in average wages.
Slope County is among the nation's least populated counties. Ziesch said the county's average number of workers dropped from 206 in 2008 to 132 last year, as some drill rig workers likely moved on to other areas of the state's oil patch.
Ziesch said the small work forces in Slope and Oliver counties make the rankings volatile.
"Add a few high-paid employees and you can push the average," he said.
Mercer County, north of Oliver County, ranked No. 2 last year with an average annual wage of $52,384, the report said. It ranked fourth in 2008 with an average salary of $47,772. Its average number of workers jumped from 4,848 in 2008 to 5,252 last year, Ziesch said.
Mercer County is home to Basin Electric Power Cooperative's Leland Olds Station near Stanton. That plant and the Milton R. Young Station in Oliver County are both undergoing multiyear, $400 million upgrades, said Steve Van Dyke, a spokesman for Bismarck-based Partners for Affordable Energy, a coalition that supports coal-based electricity.
Van Dyke said the bump in wages and the influx of workers for the two counties likely comes from the plant upgrades.
Oliver, Mercer and McLean Counties are known as Coal Country because they are home to the state's four coal mines and six of the state's seven power plants.
Van Dyke's group says the average wage for people working at the seven power plants was more than $74,000 in 2008.
In McLean County, the average wage rose from $36,963 in 2008 to $42,027 last year, moving the county two spots to sixth, Job Service said. Wages in Williams County, in the heart of the booming oil patch in western North Dakota, dropped from $48,632 in 2008 to $47,027 last year, dropping it from third to fourth.
Ziesch said the average number of workers in Williams County increased from 12,850 in 2008 to 13,055 last year. Wages likely dipped with the downward swing of more than $100 in oil prices from 2008 to 2009, he said.
"The big players in the oil industry were probably a lot more generous with their employees in 2008 than 2009, Ziesch said.
Oil-rich McKenzie County moved from sixth to fifth as wages rose from $42,637 to $45,178, Job Service said. Sargent, Cass, Billings and Pembina counties rounded out the top 10.
Ziesch said Sargent County's average wage of $41,055 was anchored by Bobcat Co.'s manufacturing plant in Gwinner. Cass County, the state's most populous county, had an average wage of $38,443 in 2009, up from $37,911. Billings County, which has seen more oil activity, jumped 10 spots to No. 9 in 2009, with the average wage increasing from $32,537 to $37,296.
Pembina County in northeast North Dakota, home of Motor Coach Industries Inc.'s bus plant, ranked 12th in 2008 and was below the statewide average. Wages jumped from $34,994 in 2008 to $37,023 last year, ranking it 10th.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has boosted the number of agents in the border town of Pembina after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ziesch said that has helped with increase the average wage in the county. Government employees in Pembina had an average wage of about $65,000 last year, he said.
GRAND ISLE, La. – A hundred days ago, shop owner Cherie Pete was getting ready for a busy summer serving ice cream and po-boys to hungry fishermen. Local official Billy Nungesser was planning his wedding. Environmental activist Enid Sisskin was preparing a speech about the dangers of offshore drilling.
Then the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, and in an instant, life along the Gulf Coast changed for good.
Pete spends her days worrying that the fishing industry may never recover. Nungesser has put his wedding on hold while he sits in meetings and argues with federal officials. And Sisskin continues to talk about the dangers of drilling — only now, people are listening.
The 100 days since the April 20 explosion have been a gut-wrenching time for folks who work, play and live along the Gulf Coast. The Gulf is a sanctuary for some, an employer for others, and now, a tragedy.
These are their stories.
The Restaurant Owners
A hundred days ago, business was booming at Barrios Seafood Restaurant in Golden Meadow, La., during Lent, when many of the Roman Catholics in south Louisiana forgo meat on Fridays or altogether. Customers were lined up for meals of crab, shrimp, fish and other seafood delivered hours after being pulled from the Gulf.
Alicia and Thomas Barrios believed their years of struggling to get the business going were finally paying off.
"We were saying, 'If business is this good now, just think what it will be like in the summer,'" Alicia Barrios said. "It was more money than we had ever made before in our lives."
They began sprucing up the restaurant, even adding a patio with visions of customers lingering there this summer. Then the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the oil began filling the Gulf.
"I'd say about 50 percent of our business was tourist, and they stopped coming immediately," Alicia said. "Seafood got hard to get, the price went up and people are worried about eating it."
These days, Thomas Barrios is working in the Vessels of Opportunity program, helping BP clean up the spill. Alicia Barrios has had to lay off two of her employees and the adjacent market is only open two days a week.
She's also thinking about how to change the menu if the price of seafood keeps going up and it remains scarce.
"I guess we could start serving pasta and hamburgers," she said. "But I'm afraid to spend the money on a new sign and menus. To be honest, if it wasn't for the BP check, we'd already be closed."
The Sandwich Maker
A hundred days ago, Cherie Pete and her husband, Alfred, were expecting another steady stream of customers at the little store they used her life savings to build on the main road to Venice, La.
Everyone in town calls the 45-year-old mother of three "Maw" anyway, so she decided to name the place Maw's Sandwich and Snack Shop.
The store opened last year, attracting a devoted group of locals who came for po-boys and ice cream, plus weekenders who showed up from New Orleans in droves to rent campsites and charter fishing trips.
"And all of a sudden, we don't have them coming in," she said.
She's still doing decent business, still working 14 hour days, but it's not the same. Now most of her customers are contractors and cleanup workers.
"We've met people from all over the country, but it's not happy meetings. It's people coming in for work," she said. "It's not a typical exciting day at work for me any more, it's just another day at work."
Pete knows the business won't last when the cleanup ends.
"I'm just afraid the bottom is going to fall out," she says. "I'm not sure when. You don't know if it's today, or tomorrow or five years from now."
The Seafood Broker
A hundred days ago, Darlene Kimball was getting ready for a busy summer at her family's docks in Pass Christian, Miss., waiting for the buyers who would snap up hundreds of pounds of shrimp from the backs of boats, loading them into ice chests and hauling them back to giant freezers.
Now the place is empty, and the only boats she sees are the ones used by BP contractors cleaning up the spill.
Kimball's family has been in the Mississippi seafood industry since 1930, and she's never wanted to do anything else. But recently the 43-year-old had to do the unthinkable — draft a resume so she could look for another line of work.
"Everything's different," she said. "My life has gone from a fast-paced to nothing."
She misses the excitement of fishermen calling from the water announcing their latest haul, the awkward tourists trying to negotiate with boat captains for a piece of the catch. Most of all, maybe, she misses the sound of the seagulls circling the boats long before they come into town.
"There's nothing around me," she said. "My culture is gone, my livelihood is gone. What my grandfather and father have worked so hard to accomplish is in jeopardy."
A hundred days ago, Florida environmental activist Enid Sisskin was scanning through oil spill data from the Minerals Management Service, preparing a speech on the dangers of offshore drilling.
Then the rig exploded, and she ended up rewriting the entire thing. She even told a halfhearted joke, about how future discussions of offshore drilling would have to begin with "a noun, a verb and the words Deepwater Horizon."
But Sisskin, who teaches in the public health program at University of West Florida, hasn't laughed much these past 100 days. She lives in the coastal community of Gulf Breeze and has long been a vocal opponent of Gulf drilling rigs.
"There's a constant knot in the pit of my stomach," she said. "I'm afraid for the future. Are we going to come back? Are our waters going to be clean enough? Are we going to have the sea birds? Can we comfortably say to tourists, come on down and get in the water and eat the fish?"
She's been busy this summer, teaching classes and giving talks to groups on the effects of oil and dispersants on public health.
There is one thing she doesn't say in her speeches: I told you so.
"This is something I never ever wanted to be able to say," she said. "It's vindication, but what a horrible way to be vindicated."
The Tourism Mogul
A hundred days ago, Frank Besson was raking in money at the tourism empire he's built on Grand Isle, a spit of land along the coast where vacationers have flocked for decades. What started with his father's souvenir shop expanded to a daiquiri bar across the street and a restaurant next door.
On a good day, he used to make $1,600. The shop's take last Saturday, when the island hosted a benefit concert? A measly $28.18, he says, pointing to the day's receipt.
His little monopoly is in shambles these days. The restaurant, known for a homemade pecan glaze that's perfect for chicken fingers, is closed indefinitely. The daiquiri bar opens late each night to a trickle of customers. And most days you can find Besson inside his locked souvenir shop, watching a tiny TV.
The only thing that's keeping the business afloat, he said ruefully, is that BP leased two of his rental homes and signed a catering contract with his shuttered restaurant.
Besson, 61, is still optimistic that business will turn around and he'll be able to reopen his restaurant. But for now, he's found himself in an unusual position. He's actually hoping for a storm.
"We want some rough weather so we can disperse and dissolve some of that stuff," he said. "I hate to say it, and I never thought I would say that, but that's what we want."
The Local Official
A hundred days ago, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser was busy with blueprints of fire stations, schools and community centers damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and still in need of rebuilding. He was planning his wedding to his longtime fiance, which they postponed after the storm.
"I had a life," Nungesser says.
Now, his life looks like this: Endless meetings with the Coast Guard. Endless arguments with federal officials and BP workers. And countless media appearances — he's been on Anderson Cooper so often alongside fellow Cajun James Carville that the trio are like the holy trinity of nighttime cable TV.
The new fire stations, schools and community centers have been put on hold. He's seen his mother twice in the past few months — and she lives right in the coastal Louisiana parish. And then there's the matter of the wedding. That's not happening anytime soon, not until life calms down and the fight is over.
For now, he's got a war to wage. That's how he characterizes his region's fight against BP, the federal government, the oil.
"A hundred days later, I can't look you in the eye and tell you who's in charge," he said. "I would not want to go to war with this team. Looking back, it's very sad that a lot of marshes and wildlife could have been saved if the federal government and BP had just listened to local people."
A hundred days ago, the Rev. Mike Tran was busy ministering to his flock at the lone Catholic church on Grand Isle.
When he was first assigned, he dragged his feet. It was too small, too isolated and there was too little to do. Boy was he wrong.
He arrived in July 2005, weeks before Hurricane Katrina demolished much of the island. Parishioners at Our Lady of the Isle weathered that storm and the others that followed, but the spill has presented a new challenge. It threatens their way of life.
Church attendance has been cut in half. Weekly donations are down $1,000. Yet more people than ever are walking up the stilted church's stairs to seek food and money.
The morning after the rig explosion, Tran held a mass to honor the 11 victims. Most church members hadn't even heard the news.
The last three months have been a whirlwind of prayer, charity and counseling.
"People are constantly in fear," he said. "They like to work, not to rely on a business for help. They were able to go out on the Gulf whenever they wanted to feed their families. They were living a worry-free life, knowing that the Gulf would provide."
Foster reported from Golden Meadow and Lush from New Orleans.
MIAMI – Gulf beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle have been closed or slapped with health warnings nearly 10 times more often this summer than last because of oil from BP's massive deepwater leak, according to a report Wednesday by a national environmental group.
While many beaches were spared, more than 2,200 closings, health advisories or notices were issued by state or local authorities through Tuesday because of oil from the nearly three-month-long spill. That compared with 237 closings and advisories in the same period last year, mainly due to bacteria or viruses in the water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's annual survey of beach water quality.
The NRDC report said the oil spill affected 49 of 253 beach segments it monitors in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Texas beaches haven't had any advisories or closings so far.
Tar balls, oil sheen, globs of crude and petroleum smells have marred some beaches in the stretch since the disaster began with an April 20 drill rig explosion that killed 11 workers. BP finally capped the well July 15, a temporary measure until the gusher can be plugged underground, but government scientists estimate between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf.
There has been no clear downward trend in warnings or closings since the cap stopped crude from pouring into the sea, the group said. Oil remains in the water and the incidence of beach landings goes up and down.
There is little distinction between closings and advisories because it's up to each state to determine whether they want to close a beach or issue a health advisory for swimmers and beachgoers, according to the study.
The organization typically studies bacteria and viruses at popular beaches. The health effects of oil can be similar: rashes, nausea and stomach ailments, said the organization's program director David Beckman. Oil also poses long-term neurological and reproduction risks.
"The visual image of seeing oil on a beach or smelling that kind of industrial oil at a place that you go to escape from the city to enjoy nature is really an assault on the senses," Beckman said.
Louisiana beaches were the hardest hit: 11 of the 28 monitored beach segments have been closed this year, with 793 combined days of closings compared to 180 advisory days this time last year.
In Alabama, there were 307 combined days of beach advisories, compared to no advisory days at this time last year. Gulf Shores Public Beach in Alabama was the only beach along the Gulf Coast to receive the organization's 5-star rating for water quality, based on 2009 data, but has been closed for 53 days due to the oil spill, according to the study.
Florida, which relies most on beachgoers to drive tourism dollars, had only 16 of its 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle impacted, resulting in 442 days of advisories. That compares to no advisory days for the same time last year.
Still, tourism officials as far south as Miami say they're losing business because of a public perception that oil is a threat, even though no crude has landed beyond the western Panhandle.
At least 60 percent of vacation spending in Florida during 2008 was in beachfront cities. Worried that reports of oil would scare tourists away, state officials are promoting interactive Web maps and Twitter feeds to show travelers — particularly those from overseas — how large the state is and how distant their destinations may be from the spill.
First Lady Michelle Obama walked barefoot along a Panhandle beach this month to encourage wary tourists to visit and she, the president and their two children are planning a Panhandle vacation next month.