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The Site C dam, LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink pipeline projects should not be designated essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to David Bowering, former chief medical officer for Northern Health, who compared project work camps to cruise ships incubating the coronavirus.
Essential services are “what’s required to keep society going,” such as food and medical supplies, Bowering said in an interview with The Narwhal.
“The last thing that seems to me [to be] reasonable is to have large work camps — that we know will be sources of infection both within themselves and in the local communities, and in the home communities of the workers when they go back,” Bowering said, referring to workers from across B.C. and Alberta, and as far away as Newfoundland, who are typically flown in and out of large camps on charter and commercial flights for two-week shifts.
“You can gloss it over and say that it’s essential that they carry on. But for me, I think everybody in society is making huge changes to their lives right now in order to try to flatten the curve and it’s really important that we do it.”
While most Canadians hunker down at home and practise social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 787,000 people worldwide and killed more than 36,000, the B.C. government has classified resource projects — including oil and gas and mining projects — as essential services.
At a press conference on March 30, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said many, “if not all,” industrial camps have “gone to a very reduced staff.” However, even at reduced capacity, some large industrial projects still house more than 800 people at work camps.
“We don’t want as many people coming in and out of the community,” Henry told reporters.
“They’ve done things like extending the length of time that people are there, going to safety staff only. I think it’s important to recognize you can’t just abandon a large mine or industrial site. That’s not safe, it’s not safe for the community, or for the environment as well.”
Teck Resources currently houses 320 coal workers at its Elkview mine site camp in the Kootenays, after scaling back its workforce by 50 per cent. Teck workers recently came forward to express concern that adequate social distancing cannot be practised at several coal mine sites in the Elk Valley.
BC Hydro said it has sent 700 workers home from the Site C camp, six kilometres from the small oil and gas city of Fort St. John, where off-shift workers are still free to travel for food and personal supplies in a “Site C leisure bus” operated by BC Hydro, as long as they sit apart.
As of March 31, there were 911 workers at the camp, an increase of almost 100 from two days earlier.
The workers included four in self-isolation with flu-like symptoms, according to BC Hydro’s daily update on camp numbers, which began on March 23. BC Hydro has not reported the number of positive COVID-19 tests since March 27, when it said there were zero.
BC Hydro has also not said what happened to 12 additional workers it previously reported were in self-isolation with flu-like symptoms, noting in an email to The Narwhal that “these numbers do change daily as workers’ symptoms improve and they go back to work, or return home if their two-week shift schedule is over.”
The NDP government designated the Site C dam — slated to be completed in 2024 — an essential service even though energy demand in B.C. has been flat since 2005 and recent mill closures have reduced provincial energy consumption.
LNG Canada, a consortium of some of the world’s most profitable oil and gas corporations, cut its workforce in half in response to the pandemic, leaving about 875 people at its Kitimat camp to build a marine export terminal for fracked gas from northern B.C.
Coastal GasLink, the Calgary-based subsidiary of TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Pipelines) that is building a 670-kilometre pipeline for the LNG Canada project, has reduced its workforce from 1,200 to 400.
Bowering said there’s no doubt a certain number of workers are required at projects to ensure the safety of sites.
“But I can’t imagine it’s not significantly less than 400 and 800 [workers],” he said.
“The determination of what’s essential seems to me to be coming from the companies rather than coming from government.”
Some local governments are growing increasingly concerned about the continued operation of nearby industrial work camps, pointing out their small hospitals are ill-equipped to handle a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.
On March 24, Fort St. John’s city council followed other B.C. municipalities and declared the pandemic a local emergency, briefly granting the city extraordinary powers such as the ability to manage people’s movements and ration goods. City councillors said BC Hydro should “send everybody home” during the pandemic.
Two days later, the provincial government suspended all municipal emergency orders except for Vancouver’s, citing the need for centralized pandemic coordination.
The decision left Fort St. John, which has a 55-bed hospital with seven ventilators, powerless to place any restrictions on the movements of workers from the Site C camp or other nearby industrial camps.
BC Hydro said it is following provincial guidelines for COVID-19 testing, which prioritize testing for health-care workers, care home residents and workers, people returning from other countries and those identified as being part of viral clusters. Most people in the province with COVID-19 symptoms are not tested and recover at home.
“The general advice to everyone is if you have flu-like symptoms, stay at home and you don’t need to be tested,” Bowering said. “But these people aren’t at home.”
Bowering said people in work camps who display COVID-19 symptoms should be tested, just as they would be in a care home or on a cruise ship.
“My inclination would be to require that at least a few of them be tested. If they have COVID-19, that has big implications, even if they aren’t acutely ill.”
On March 30, the BC Centre for Disease Control released new interim communicable disease control guidelines for industrial camps, including for handwashing and cleaning supplies. Disposable gloves and masks, or tissues if masks are not available, are to be issued to workers with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the guidelines.
Bowering said he’s not aware of any evidence that enhanced cleaning and disinfectant measures and other precautions taken in closed settings have managed to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“The best examples that we’re all so familiar with are cruise ships and, believe me, cruise ships have been working hard for years to figure out how to control communicable disease in a closed setting where people are living together and eating together,” he said.
“It literally can’t be done, especially with a virus where the symptoms are potentially very minimal, where the men working in these camps have a lot of incentive to not report on the risk [in case] they may be locked down and quarantined rather than get to go home after the shift is over. The last place you want to be in a COVID-19 outbreak, where things are really unusual and restrictions are everywhere, is not at home.”
Workers on industrial projects need to be able to protect themselves by staying home like everybody else “unless they’re saving lives, providing food, providing care services,” Bowering said.
“It seems to me this issue of what’s essential is a really key one here.”
Henry said Northern Health is working with the industrial camps to reduce the risks in those camps and “make sure they are scaling back appropriately.” The region is also putting measures in place to reduce risks to local communities, she said.
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said current measures fail to provide sufficient protection for local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
On March 30, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and the two other members of the union’s executive released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan, urging swift action to protect the public’s health from the heightened risks of COVID-19 transmission posed by continuing construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“Most vulnerable to the spread will be frontline health-care workers, project workers and local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities forced to shoulder the consequences for any disregard for health and safety,” said the letter, which was also addressed to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Coastal GasLink recently announced the successful completion of winter construction even though B.C. is in a state of emergency, the chiefs pointed out.
“The B.C. government has enabled this with overbroad classifications of ‘essential services’ that allow the work on to continue,” the chiefs wrote, noting that “critical activities” cited by Coastal GasLink include pipe delivery and stockpiling.
“With the urgency to move materials comes the associated movement of people and spillover risks to every person and community they interact with delivering supplies to the project,” the chiefs said.
“Corporate exceptionalism cannot become a pandemic response strategy for the governments of B.C. and Canada.”
On March 26, the chiefs also sent an open letter to Henry and Dix, calling on the province to take immediate action to halt all construction on the publicly funded $10.7-billion Site C dam due to the risk a COVID-19 outbreak in the work camp would pose to local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
As of March 31, there were 15 reported cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, an area the size of France, and 998 cases in the rest of the province.
Bowering said the B.C. government should disclose the areas where people have tested positive, in part because outbreaks of communicable diseases such as the flu tend to be localized within subregions in the north.
“If you had a cluster of five, or if all  were in one part of Northern Health, it would be totally inappropriate to be not telling that part of the population that that’s the case,” he said.
Henry said measures to tackle COVID-19 are the same across the province, regardless of whether people live in the Lower Mainland or in Terrace.
“We need to physically distance from each other and we need to make sure that if we’re sick at all that we’re staying away.”
She said staff from Northern Health are working with industrial camps and local communities to reduce risks, while Indigenous communities are putting measures into place to protect their Elders and making plans in the event that COVID-19 spreads through their communities.
“There is no community that is immune to this virus,” Henry said.
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