The busy crew at Coyote Septic Service helps keep Bakken rigs clean and production workers happy.
None of the crew at Coyote Septic Service, Inc. in Williston, N.D., ever imagined they would be in a business pumping tanks. They are an unusual crew — two local young women, an older man and a manager who is only 26 years old. Located in the heart of the Bakken oil field formation, however, the new business is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of an opportunity.
With support from his father, Mike Erickson, and his business partners Darren (Bart) and Rhonda Bartlette, Nick Erickson left his job, trained for a CDL and started pumping tanks at the end of 2009. By May 2011, the manager of Coyote Septic was too busy to handle the job alone, and he hired a former co-worker and friend, then her sister and another worker.
Like the multiplication of the oil wells around them, the company has grown, without any serious promotion — the trucks don't even have phone numbers on them.
Building a business
Erickson had an idea what it's like to run a business. His father and business partners have owned and operated Bekk's Hot Oil Services since 2000. Growing up, Erickson helped out around the shop, but never drove a truck. He worked for other businesses — at one time, the industrious Erickson held down three jobs in Montana. He was working in the parts department at a Williston business when the Bekk's partners offered him an opportunity to run Coyote Septic Service.
"A friend who delivers water to the rigs said there was a need for septic pumping. Another local company just couldn't keep up. He knew my dad and Bart could do well with it," Erickson says. "They didn't have time so they asked if I would like to run the truck for awhile."
Erickson started working on his commercial license and rode with Bart Bartlette for about a month to learn the area and develop hands-on training. Because waste tanks on the oil field contain shower and laundry water — what's considered graywater — he discovered this type of pumping was fairly clean compared to residential septic systems. Stallion, the first company to hire Coyote Septic in late 2009, was happy with Erickson's service.
The job started out at less than 40 hours per week based on demand. But within 18 months, Erickson was working long days Monday through Saturday and was on call on Sundays. The situation couldn't stand.
"I was getting very burned out," Erickson says.
It was time for a second truck, and some extra hands. He contacted LeAnna Nehring, a friend who had once driven a semi rig for another local company.
"It's not terrible (pumping tanks) like a lot of people think," Nehring says. "I drive the Mack truck. This is pretty easy (compared to driving a semi tractor-trailer)."
The biggest draw for Nehring was higher pay, and when Erickson needed another driver, Nehring's sister, Heather Nehring, was eager to sign on in September 2011.
Pay well so they stay
In an area with a 1 percent or less unemployment rate, Erickson understands the importance of keeping good workers. So he devised a generous salary arrangement.
"It's incentive for them (employees)," Erickson says. "I want to keep them."
In addition to a good salary, Coyote Septic offers health insurance and a 401(k) plan after working for a year.
Each employee — and Erickson — take turns being on call on the weekends, once every four weeks. When workers are sick or take days off, Erickson usually takes a route.
Erickson loves to utilize the latest technology, including his Apple computer, iPhone, the cloud and texting, but he keeps track of jobs and locations the old-fashioned way, in a small notebook. When his crew arrives in the morning, he refers to the book to tell them where they need to pump. Each person's route averages 200 to 250 miles a day.
"We usually (service on the oil rigs) twice a week. We work for a couple of companies. Stallion has 2,000-gallon tanks that look like big diesel tanks and are foam-insulated. Oil Patch, which rents out skid houses (housing on the rig sites), has 1,000- and 1,500-gallon white plastic tanks," Erickson says. Sites with fewer workers, typically to finish wells for production, usually only need to be serviced once a week.
The tanks are located behind the housing and are generally easily accessible. But the site manager willingly moves trucks and equipment if they are in the way, LeAnna Nehring notes. When Oil Patch moves to another site, pumpers spend extra time to remove all solids that have settled in the tanks. The Nehring sisters note they have found it easy to recruit a couple of workers to tip the tanks so they can pump them clean.
Depending on the number of tanks, workers pump one or two sites before they need to unload at the Williston or Watford City wastewater treatment plants or spread septage on private land. Land application, following environmental guidelines for nitrogen content, is currently allowed in the area, Erickson says. But it comes with hassles and the practice may be changing soon.
"The state monitors us to make sure we drive around and spread it. They have satellite imaging," he explains. About once a week, someone in the area sees a Coyote Septic truck dumping and calls the sheriff's department, which sends an officer to check it out. Coyote Septic workers are careful to follow the regulations, but a while ago, another company dumped in a ditch and that has made everyone more vigilant about following the rules.
The dumping issue should be resolved soon, however, as a landowner is building a private lagoon that Coyote Septic will pay a fee to use.
The growing fleet
Coyote still uses the 2005 Kenworth Erickson learned to drive with. It has a 4,000-gallon waste tank and a Jurop pump.
Heather Nehring drives a 2010 Peterbilt 388 built by Curry Supply Co. with a 4,600-gallon steel tank and a Masport pump. LeAnna Nehring drives a 2007 Mack Granite from Curry Supply with a 4,600-gallon steel tank. Both trucks have heated valves for efficient work during cold winters. Heat tape is used on the Kenworth pump in subzero weather.
Erickson says the partners have considered purchasing a tractor/trailer with a bigger tank to reduce the frequency of trips for disposal, but have held off because the bigger rig would present a challenge when maneuvering in tight quarters at the well sites. A semi would also add stress for the driver negotiating the heavy traffic around Williston.
LeAnna Nehring notes that the traffic has become a big issue since she drove a semi a few years ago. "I'm not so worried about my driving. But I have to be prepared for what somebody else does," she says.
It may not be long before Coyote Septic needs to add another truck to the congested traffic, though. Erickson notes that a truck sidelined for repairs upsets the schedule. With rough roads pounding the trucks and loosening parts, it would be nice to have a spare pumping rig on hand. Plus, the workload earlier this year — servicing 15 to 20 rigs and 20 to 30 production sites — was on the verge of requiring another truck and driver to keep up.
With help from his mother, Lori, who handles the bookkeeping, and Rhonda Bartlette and her sister Barb Lind, who take care of invoices, Erickson appreciates the benefits of managing a business. He recognizes that the oil boom has provided a unique opportunity. In addition to servicing well sites, he has a couple of business clients in town. Erickson is concerned about establishing an employee-friendly business to keep the workers he has.
"I don't want to push them hard so they are overworked," Erickson says. "I want to be the kind of boss I would have liked."