From the Site C hydro megaproject to the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain pipelines, from the tar sands/oil sands in northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, fossil workers with little opportunity for physical distancing are finding themselves at higher risk of contracting COVID-19—and in most cases, raising anxieties for nearby First Nations and other rural communities with limited resources to deal with an outbreak.
The cramped living conditions at fossil and hydro “man camps” in British Columbia and Alberta have produced urgent warnings from First Nations and small town mayors, a change.org petition asking B.C. Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to shut the camps, and a Council of Canadians appeal urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do the same.
Yesterday, CBC reported that 979 workers were still onsite at the Site C construction camp near Fort St. John, British Columbia, including several hundred who arrived by air over the last couple of weeks, some of them from other countries. “This despite the fact that 10 people at the site are in self-isolation for symptoms of COVID-19, and there is no publicly available information about how many workers are being tested or how physical distancing rules can be critically observed in a work site setting,” the national broadcaster wrote.
In a town of 20,000 with only seven ventilators, officials are worried that an outbreak at the camp would quickly overrun local health services. “We don’t have the capacity if something were to go wrong,” said local councillor Trevor Bolin. “How can this be mitigated to ensure everybody’s safety and health, not only at the camp, but in the community as well, because we are so closely connected?”
“It is not an emergency service. It is not a front-line service,” councillor Byron Stewart said of the Site C project. “I personally would like the province to come in, shut it down, and send everybody home.”
Late last month, local blogger Shirlley Coyle said a dozen workers at the camp were already under quarantine with cold- and flu-like symptoms, prompting alarm at the nearby Bigstone Cree Nation.
“It’s not safe. What are people not getting about this?” asked community member Connie Greyeyes. She added that the coronavirus “actually reminded me of first contact (between Indigenous communities and European settlers) when we didn’t have disease, and it was brought to us—like smallpox.”
While the Site C camp is operating well below its usual capacity, the number of workers has increased significantly from March 30, when a total of 819 were present. “The province of B.C. has deemed the ongoing construction of the dam an essential service,” and “Henry has defended the continued construction at industrial sites,” CBC notes.
“I think it’s important to recognize you can’t just abandon a large mine or a large industrial site,” Henry said. “That’s not safe…for the local communities or the environment.”
BC Hydro said it was conducting onsite pre-screening and temperature scans as a precaution, and that workers from outside Canada must adhere to self-isolation guidelines before entering the camp. But former camp employees, whose identities CBC withheld, said it’s impossible to perform the skilled labour the project requires while adhering to physical distance rules.
“You can’t build a dam, you can’t build a coffee shop, you can’t build a house, you can’t build anything [working] two metres apart,” said one former contractor.
An ironworker who was last at the site in mid-March said some crews were still working side by side, and physical distancing was impossible with 200 people together in the dining hall. (B.C. has banned gatherings of 50 or more and set penalties for violators.) “They tried to limit seating on the tables to three people,” he told CBC. “But the tables, they’re so small that you can’t do that. No matter where you go, you’re not maintaining that six-feet rule.”
Jamie Bodnarchuk, communications manager with Peace River Hydro Partners, one of the major contractors on the project, responded that “the safety of our workers is our number one priority,” and “we have also adjusted some of our work scopes and construction tasks to accommodate new and evolving safety guidelines.”
The ironworker’s description reflected similar concerns for the more than 1,000 oil drilling rigs and production platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, where as many as 200 workers have to stay safe as they “”navigate narrow corridors, sleep in shared rooms, and dine in crowded mess halls,” Bloomberg writes. “Similar coronavirus concerns are affecting other [fossil] energy businesses that rely on employees sleeping in cramped conditions onsite—from oil worker camps in North Dakota and Alaska’s North Slope, to an aluminum smelter in Canada and copper mines in the Chilean desert.”
“There’s no way to do social distancing on a rig,” said Tim Tarpley, vice president of the Houston-based Petroleum Equipment and Services Association.
“The only option is you’ve got to clear everybody before they get on,” he added. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t get positive folks out on the rig.”
Last week, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs urged Ottawa to “act swiftly” to shut down construction on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, arguing that the risks posed by the project “are ones that were not consented to, and ones that leaders and officials raised warnings about in advance of the project’s approval”. Elsewhere in the province, Trans Mountain Corporation CEO Ian Anderson said his publicly-owned company was “continuously assessing this unprecedented situation” posed by the pandemic, and “will do everything in our power to not put workers, communities, and Indigenous peoples at any COVID-19 risk.”