Hundreds of workers en route to valley, despite pandemic

By Andru McCracken with files from Fran Yanor


Work is well underway at the Trans Mountain pipe bending worksite across the Highway 5 from the Best Western. Another site on the Valemount Industrial Park will soon see work crews assemble temporary housing for pipeline crews. /ANDRU MCCRACKEN

CN is set to bring 140 workers to Valemount as part of their annual springtime rail maintenance program starting Tuesday April 7; similarly, Trans Mountain is about to bring in 50 new employees to start assembling the worker camp south of Valemount on Whiskey Fill Road.

The railway is deemed an essential service and despite objections from some in the province, so is the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project.

Dr. David Bowering, the former Chief Medical Officer for Northern Health, has been raising concerns about what work is being deemed essential.

Bowering said if the track maintenance program is vital and will save lives it is warranted, but that preparing for and building the Trans Mountain Expansion work camp is inexcusable.

“Is it worth putting people at risk to build a camp to build a pipeline? It is crystal clear to me it shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

Bowering said that the same measures put in place by industrial actors have been used by seniors homes housing the most vulnerable.

“Sanitizing, distancing, taking people’s temperature before and after work, they will have those in place and they are good… if you absolutely have to do this work,” he said.

“This is not the time to gamble with a virus that so far we haven’t been able to contain. If they were growing food, repairing sewer lines, things people absolutely needed now [it’s justified].”

Dr. Raina Fumerton the Northern Health Chief Medical Officer said she wants camps to follow their guidelines.

“What I’m interested in is that (industrial camps) are implementing all of the measures as outlined in the guidance document,” said Fumerton last Friday. “And that they have a good strategy, which they do, to be able to screen, test and isolate people who are suspected or confirmed positive.”

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry addressed Bowering’s concerns.

“I know Dr. Bowering quite well and I think it’s unfortunate that he is not as connected with the northern health medical health officers as he was in the past,” said Henry when asked about Bowering’s concerns.

“Northern Health has been very active working with the industrial camps in the North to reduce the risks in those camps. They’re scaling back appropriately to be able to put in place the measures that we have required.”

Bowering said he believes that health officials are doing a fabulous job, but called into question assertions that COVID-19 is under control.

“The attempt to control it and assure people we have it under control? At this point nobody does,” said Bowering.

For Trans Mountain’s part, they assured residents that the health and safety of their workforce, their families and communities is their first priority.

“We will do everything in our power to not put workers, communities and Indigenous peoples at any COVID-19 risk,” said Ian Anderson, President and CEO of Trans Mountain Corporation.

“And if there is an escalation in the health officials guidance, or if we are not confident we can provide a safe workplace, we will initiate safe work stand-down procedures.”

Officials said a maximum workforce of 50 people will build the temporary worker accommodation site.

“At all of our work sites, we are adhering to guidelines from health and government officials and following social distancing protocols,” said a company spokesperson.

Valemount resident Karen Leslie said she was concerned about the large number of people coming into town.

“Even if they had their own apartments, I would think there would be some interfacing with the brewery, liquor store and IGA,” she said. “They should probably be all tested to make sure that everybody is safe, especially as we’re finding out about people being asymptomatic.”

Leslie worried that the influx means locals lose control over the health of the community, but felt better about the influx after speaking with Torgerson.

Mayor Owen Torgerson has been in contact with CN.

He said the company offered to stagger the arrival of the 140 personnel.

Torgerson said much of the work is done with machines, worker contact is minimized and machines are disinfected before each shift.

Other measures include limiting the number of crew members in a single truck, single occupancy in hotel rooms and not congregating for social events while they are here.

Torgerson said he asked that crews designate a person to shop at the local grocery store.

“One person can get 4 gallons of milk versus four people getting one gallon of milk,” he said.

Torgerson said CN also has measures in place to discipline behaviour not in line with protocols.

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