The small businesses are closed. Spring break programs are cancelled. Children play outdoors and — though they live next door from one another — do not go inside each other’s houses. The playgrounds are empty. At the ski hill, for the first winter ever, the lifts are silent and the slopes are bare of skiers — a month before the scheduled closing of the season.
Fernie, B.C., is one of thousands of communities across Canada responding to the COVID-19 outbreak with collective efforts. Following provincial and federal guidelines, many businesses have temporarily shut their doors, schools are suspended and families are self-isolating at home. The stores that have remained open are plastered with warnings recommending patrons practice self-distancing and use the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer bottles. Checkout staff wear gloves.
But, residents say, there is one notable exception to this state of preparedness. Teck Resources Ltd., Canada’s “largest diversified mining company,” is the Elk Valley’s single largest employer. The corporation operates four steelmaking coal mines in the valley, employing more than 3,000 people, and workers are warning the company’s failure to properly face COVID-19 is putting the area at increased risk of an outbreak.
Although Interior Health, the health authority in the Kootenays, has banned medical staff from speaking to the media, some are unable to hide their concerns — and are taking to social media to vocalize them.
Teck’s mines “need to CLOSE down right now,” Dr. Johnny Peachell, an intensive care physician at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail, said in a post on Teck’s Facebook page. “We are already feeling the stress of this COVID outbreak and we WILL NOT be [able to] handle a surge of cases from Teck.”
He warned that “Canada is at the exact same point Italy was three weeks ago” and urged Teck to shut down operations temporarily.
A March 17 press release from Teck announced the implementation of “extensive preventative measures” amid the coronavirus crisis, including home working for all corporate office staff, the reduction or elimination of large meetings and gatherings, “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, including frequent disinfecting of employee buses and work areas,” “promoting preventative measures, such as frequent handwashing,” “screening all contractors and external visitors to site for risk factors and symptoms,” “increasing social distancing practices at site,” “expanding sick leave coverage for affected employees,” and “requiring” employees who show flu-like symptoms or return from abroad to stay away from work and self-isolate.
The reality, staff say, is very different.
I spoke to eight Teck workers, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
One witness tells of foremen making the rounds to warn workers: “If we have to be quarantined we will not be paid.” (In 2015, the combined annual revenue generated by Teck’s four current Elk Valley mines was just under $2.7 billion and in 2018 reported record revenues of $12.6 billion.)
“We were all told if we are unable to work because of this virus we will not be paid,” another shop worker wrote me, while pleading for anonymity. Management, they say, are known for “trying to look for things” they can use to fire anyone who speaks up about Teck operations.
When contacted for comment, Teck’s Doug Brown forwarded the company’s press release of March 17, and specified employees unable to work due to COVID-19 would have “immediate access” to their established sick leave benefits, though it’s unclear to which employees this applies to, to what extent and under which specific conditions.
Brown said Teck is following COVID-19 guidelines from B.C.’s Chief Inspector of Mines that recommends groups of more than 50 individuals should be avoided and meal facilities should operate in shifts to “minimize interactions.”
LNG Canada sent half its workforce home this week from its facility in Kitimat, B.C., in an attempt to prevent COVID-19 infections. BC Hydro also announced this week that it will only continue with “essential work” at the Site C dam, where more than 4,000 workers are employed, to help reduce the number of workers staying in camp.
On Tuesday the B.C. Building Trades Council recommended large remote resource projects that house workforces be shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The council mentioned work camps servicing the LNG Canada and Site C dam workforces but did not mention operations like Teck’s mines, which has a 500-person work camp called the Elk Valley Lodge. Many of Teck’s employees live in Sparwood full-time, while others fly-in.
A family member of one electrician wrote to me to confirm much of the information sent in by others, but added, “I have been scared to write a letter or take any kind of action [about the current COVID-19 situation at the mines] for fear of what the company response may be.”
There is “so much anger about the culture that persists at the mine,” the partner of yet another miner says, but “people need their jobs. And the fact is that when anyone stands up for their rights, they get bullied in one way or another … ”
According to several sources, non-disclosure agreements are a common requirement for Teck staff upon joining, and include clauses prohibiting staff from any public comment negatively portraying the company. Teck’s anonymous reporting line, 1-888-873-3745, is jokingly referred to internally as the “whistleblower” line, due to suspicions it is used by the company to weed out and identify those who speak up.
“We’ve had multiple employees on site after international travel,” one Teck employee says, and Teck’s “screening” for visitors to site is a simple paper form, to be filled out voluntarily. Oil and gas workers continue to “fly in” and out without screening, travelling from other parts of Canada to the mines as needed, according to another employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Not all computers or workspaces are being disinfected, according to one employee who uses that equipment daily. Miners are provided with standard respirators, but the cleaning crews say they are not provided with safety masks — and since Teck mines operate around the clock, there are no closed hours for those crews to catch up on sterilization away from everyday staff or visitors.
By March 19, according to one Elkview worker, these crews were “running out of wipes and spray” already — a complaint echoed by numerous commenters on Teck’s Facebook page.
In the March 17 company statement, Robin Sheremeta, Teck’s senior VP of Coal, states Teck is “focused on continuing to ensure the health and safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.” This, too, is scoffed at by the people who work at Mr. Sheremeta’s mines.
And while Teck publicly claims “operating sites are very large” and “employees are widely distributed,” shop workers at the Elk Valley mines insist their workspaces are crowded.
“We are all working very closely with each other,” one shop staff says, “touching all the same things all day.” (At one of Teck’s mines in the area, the shop can be occupied by 50 people or more at any given time.)
“Social distancing is not occurring to [the] operations staff at the mine,” an employee’s family member posted on Facebook.
On Wednesday, a day after Teck’s press release, a meeting was held at Teck’s Elkview site “with 100+ contractors,” a person with knowledge of the situation says. Those contractors were “packed in like sardines.”
The situation on Teck’s employee buses is the same. According to Teck, the number of buses has been increased (a Teck representative, contacted for this piece, did not specify to what number), and workers are made to sit well apart from one another on the vehicles. And yet, on the ground, staff are “worried about the bus rides to work and back but … feel they can’t speak up,” one resident says.
Teck’s commitment to put “one person to seat on the buses to site,” according to another employee, is hollow: “that’s not the case.” A second employee says more buses have been provided, but they follow the same routes and halt at the same stops — where workers wait, in close groups, on the usual schedule, all looking to board the same vehicles. “They added one bus on the last shift so everyone can sit a bit further apart,” a third employee says. Late Friday evening further buses were brought in, with seats taped off and “no more than 15 [passengers]” allowed on each bus, according to staff.
Some on-site staff have taken to carpooling instead of riding the buses, preferring to take their chances with a smaller, consistent group of travelling mates than with crowded buses. Others have tried to drive to work themselves but have been told by Teck getting a parking pass at the mine would be “unlikely.”
On Thursday, according to a Teck internal release to all employees, one worker at the Elkview mine was sent home after exhibiting a cough. It is unclear how long the employee was at work, or in what proximity to other staff. Just days earlier, according to several employees, another member of staff was sent home — after riding the shared bus, and after reaching site — for exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The worker in question had recently returned from the United States.
In response to questions, Karl Hardt, a spokesperson for Interior Health, said the province does not publicly identify the location of confirmed cases. “We need everybody to be aware that the risk is not just in one place. It’s in all communities. People need to be taking the same measures now everywhere in B.C. and across Canada and, quite frankly, globally, right now,” Hardt wrote in an email.
Hardt also pointed to a recent statement from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, in which she said COVID-19 “is being transmitted very rapidly. It doesn’t serve anybody to think … ‘it won’t affect me. It’s not in my community. It won’t affect my family.’ We know people travel back from all over the place. We know that we can’t always tell everybody that has this disease.”
On Friday, a maintenance shop employee at Teck’s Fording River site, posted on Facebook that “iam [sic] off right now because I have it.” His posts suggested he had been sick and symptomatic for at least three days. Following these posts, on Friday evening Teck updated its internal onsite policies to specify any worker who calls in sick must remain home for fourteen days.
In an email sent Friday evening Teck’s Brown wrote: “Employees continue to be paid under sick leave benefits. As noted, sick leave benefits are applicable for employees with symptoms or who are told to self isolate by a health authority because of close contact with someone with symptoms.” Brown did not clarify if all employees are entitled to sick leave, or only those to whom they were already guaranteed, or whether some employees will be required to take time off unpaid (as claimed by several workers at the time of writing)
Recent studies suggest between 19 and 30 per cent of COVID-19 sufferers carry, and spread, the virus while asymptomatic Even in those who do eventually show symptoms, the asymptomatic incubation period is thought to last anywhere from four to 11.5 days. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends voluntary quarantine (self-isolation) for all persons who have had “close contact with a symptomatic person … to prevent transmission of the virus.”
A Centex gas station in Cranbrook, which services Teck trucks, closed the same day, due to an employee testing positive for the virus, according to a gas station employee. As of 3 p.m. on Friday, Teck had not communicated with any of its employees about any positive tests, or announced any changes to its COVID-19 response.
Many of the Teck employees The Narwhal contacted are concerned for themselves — but all are worried for the community at large, and the impact their employer may be having on it.
Sparwood, where Teck’s local headquarters (and the Elkview, Line Creek and Greenhills mines) are located, is a town of 3,500 people, 475 of which are over 65, according to 2016 census figures. Nearly 4,000 of Cranbrook’s 24,000 residents are over 65. Approximately 666 people in Fernie are over 65.
The East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook is equipped with six ICU beds (77 total). All of them, according to Interior Health figures, are at or near 100 per cent capacity already, a situation mirrored at the Elk Valley Hospital (Fernie) and the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital (Trail). Chronic pulmonary disease and pneumonia are among the most common reasons for inpatient treatment at these hospitals, conditions which increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. With the current testing shortage and widespread misinformation, the local population profile and a limited number of beds (and an almost total lack of ventilators), the region is particularly vulnerable.
“We can’t test! Don’t wait for a positive!,” one local nurse practitioner posted this week, adding that swabbing of “high-risk patients” had only just begun, in a limited supply. “We have no capacity to handle the outbreak that is coming,” a local GP adds. “Once we have our first positive case, there will have been hundreds of people exposed.”
The Elk Valley now has two rumoured positive tests. At least one of them passed through Teck Resources Ltd.
Teck representatives Robin Sheremeta (vice-president of coal) and Nic Milligan (manager of community and governmental affairs) were contacted for this story for comment. As of March 20 no response has been received. Teck Resources’ media office responded on March 16 with a list of the measures outlined in the next day’s press release, and as of March 20 has not responded to further follow-ups.
Update Saturday March 21, 2020 at 11:40 a.m. PST: This article was updated to include comment from Karl Hardt of Interior Health. This article was also updated to include reference to Teck’s 500-person Elk Valley Lodge work camp.
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