Several major northern B.C. construction projects would have to continue with the holiday season slowdown well into the new year, to break the cycle of COVID-19 infections at large work camps, according to B.C. public health officials.
On Dec. 19, 2020, Northern Health Public Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the 7 Mile Lodge in the Burns Lake Local Health Area (LHA), and Little Rock Lake Lodge near Fraser Lake, in Nechako LHA for the Coastal GasLink project, following which both the accommodation sites were closed down to all except essential staff.
On Jan. 8, Northern Health also sent out a news release, in what they said was a final update pending any new cases, on the Coastal GasLink camp outbreaks.
“To date, there have been 56 laboratory-confirmed cases associated with the outbreak at 7 Mile Lodge and Little Rock Lake Lodge (an increase of 3 since the December 31 update). All of the cases are now recovered and have completed their required self-isolation,” said the news release.
This outbreak followed on the heels of the LNG Canada Project Site outbreak in Kitimat.
Following the increasing number of outbreaks at the camps for several construction projects, Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry posted a new order last week, putting in place a slow return to work at full capacity for the LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink pipeline works, the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion, the Site C dam and Rio Tinto Alcan’s water tunnel expansion project for the aluminum smelter at Kitimat.
This order details the workforce limits for a slow return that was announced before Christmas.
The order restricts the Coastal GasLink project to the holiday-season level of 400 employees through January, then ramp up to 600 more as the camps along the Highway 16 pipeline route gradually resume operations.
When asked about the exact number of workers currently at the camps and whether the timeline would be affected by these changes, a CGL spokesperson informed Black Press Media that they had “no further updates at the moment beyond what was posted Dec. 31” and that any further updates will be posted on the update page on the CGL website.
The order indicates that the LNG Canada’s liquefied natural gas project at Kitimat can add 400 workers by Jan. 6, reaching 850, with another 250 workers allowed by Jan. 20 and the project up to 1,100 employees by late January.
The Site C dam project near Fort St. John would be allowed to go from 400 to 800 workers in early January, with 300 more by Jan. 21 and 1,100 on the job by late January.
Trans Mountain’s twinning of the pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby and Washington state is adding up to 100 more workers, with 450 more after Feb. 1 and a total of 600 on the job by mid-February, while Rio Tinto Alcan’s T2 water project would be permitted to go from 160 to 280 workers by mid-January. The numbers will be revisited again in February, depending on the situation at that time.
Each project will have to submit a restart plan for operations into 2021 and could resume operations once approved by public health authorities.
Northern Health has also informed the Burns Lake Mayor of the early arrival of vaccines in the region, in the coming days and vaccines are being administered to 10 remote Indigenous reserves. However, the increasing number of cases in the region is still a cause for concern for the health authority as it is putting additional pressure on the frontline workers.
“This increase has resulted in an increased numbers of clusters of people with COVID-19, outbreaks of COVID-19, the transmission of COVID-19 to surrounding communities, including Indigenous communities, increasing risk of hospitalization, intensive care admissions and deaths in the Northern Health region,” the order states. “It is challenging for public health officials to respond to cases, clusters and outbreaks of infection at remote worksites and industrial camps, and a high volume of cases taxes the capacity of the Northern Health Authority public health system to carry out contact tracing.”
– With files from Tom Fletcher