By Andru McCracken
Valemount held a special council meeting on April 22 to gather more information about whether it would be safe to house some Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion crews in local hotels and whether the company would consider it as a possibility. On their video call, Council heard opinions from a local doctor, a medical health officer, the ambulance chief, local police, the
MLA, tourism representatives and Trans Mountain.
Ultimately council voted unanimously to support the following resolution: “That the Village of Valemount supports Trans Mountain moving into the community with more discussion to follow.”
The discussions that led up to the decision revealed much about how agencies are dealing with COVID-19.
Pipeliners were supposed to stay in a work camp currently under construction south of Valemount, but because of a steep drop in the number of people travelling due to COVID-19 local hotels are wondering whether some pipeliners could stay with them.
Dr. Rakel Kling, a Medical Health Officer for Northern Health, said she was in favour of the concept at the outset of the meeting.
“I haven’t seen a specific proposal written down, but in general I’m supportive of this happening providing Trans Mountain provides an appropriate and approved communications plan to the appropriate people to make sure they are following all of the orders protocols and precautions to keep workers safe and communities safe and the public safe,” said Kling.
Local doctor Ray Markham also supports the concept.
“Social distancing needs to happen,” he said. “It makes sense for the economy of the town, it does actually better align with some of our initial approach to Trans Mountain, which was rather than trying to create a separate health care system a kilometer away from the town with no resources to deal with emergencies, to invest in and loop into our services.”
Markham said local doctors would be happy to take on the extra load if the company would make a full-time nurse available to help with on-call emergencies.
Tourism outlook: bad
Economic Development Officer Silvio Gislimberti said traffic this summer is expected to be low.
“We are expecting a general decrease of visitation of around 80% for summer 2020,” said Gislimberti. “That will have a tremendous impact on all our businesses providing services in the tourism industry.”
Camp will be built
Jasmine Devick of Trans Mountain said that the company will build the worker camp even if workers ultimately stay in town.
“It’s a requirement. We don’t know what the future holds with COVID or tourism. We still need those guaranteed beds. We’re not just talking one year of construction,” she said. “How many people can we peel off in a logical manner to support the community that has supported us so significantly?”
Devick said that under COVID requirements, the 500-bed camp may only support 250 workers depending on the spacing requirements. That could put 250 workers in the local community.
Terry Power, a director of Tourism Valemount and the owner of Summit River Lodge, suggested the idea of housing workers in local facilities.
“We’ve all been closed for four to six weeks, we have everything on the line and we spend this whole time watching the camps be built,” he said. “If they can send 200 to 300 workers to hotels… that’s the plea from the small businesses.”
MLA Shirley Bond was on the call and asked whether there was alignment between Alberta and BC on COVID protocols. Devick said Trans Mountain defaults to the highest standard of regulation between the two provinces.
Bond also pressed Dr. Markham about the pressure Trans Mountain workers might place on the Valemount Health Clinic.
“One of the most important things with this project is going to be continued community buy-in and support. I think whatever the company does to demonstrate that, including additional nursing care is an important thing,” she said.
Bond said she has heard loud and clear the concerns of Valemount residents about workers bringing COVID cases to the valley.
“In the event a worker is diagnosed. What is the extrication program?” she asked.
Lizette Parsons Bell, in charge of Trans Mountain camps, said if workers are infected, Trans Mountain would change course.
“We will continue to build and continue to work as long as we have no COVID cases. Knock on wood we do not have a single case,” she said.
Ambulance Chief Derek McLure gave a brief rundown of how the ambulance has been dealing with patients during COVID.
“We are doing adaptive triage,” he said. “We deal with the patient in the parking lot, we dawn PPE [personal protective equipment] and avoid putting the patient in the ambulance unless it is an emergency to avoid the cleaning that is required after.”
He said the system is working well.
“We assess whether the patient is a medical condition that requires treatment or whether we suspect COVID symptoms,” said McLure.
Councilor Pete Pearson echoed residents’ health concerns.
“Our citizens are very concerned about the influx. Going forward, whatever path we take I think it’s important we communicate to them what is being done to mitigate safety on both sides,” he said.
Councillor Hollie Blanchette, the president of the Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns for local businesses.
“Businesses around town, everything is on the line for them, as long as safety is number one. There are a few of them worried they are not going to be able to make it,” she said.
“Communication is going to be everything on this,” said councillor Donnie Maclean.
More call-outs for RCMP
Sergeant Bob Deane said that the arrival of workers would increase RCMP call outs.
“Inherently when you bring that many workers to a community of our size the call volume will significantly increase. Impaired driving, fights, public intoxication, workplace injuries, with workplaces comes drugs too, that seems to be hand-in-hand when you bring these types of projects to communities. I’m not criticising, it is just what happens. Undoubtedly our calls for service will increase. That’s not even involving the protestors,” he said.
Devick said Trans Mountain has strict rules in place, but acknowledged there would be an increase in incidents.
“Our tolerance levels are zero. Unfortunately when there is a population increase the size we are talking about there are, inherently, more issues. More people equals more problems,” said Devick. “We are very aware that there are some people who don’t like our project and sometimes break the law inorder to demonstrate that.”
Bond asked for Trans Mountain to estimate the amount of money the project is bringing into the community.
“It helps keep the opinion shapers all headed in the same direction,” she said.
In a subsequent interview with the Goat, Mayor Owen Torgerson said local hotels and the pipeline company need mutual reassurances about COVID-19 protocols.
“There were some concerns from Trans Mountain; they have to protect their workforce. They want to ensure there are reasonable COVID protocols in the accommodations and the accommodations need to be assured off-work protocols are being followed by Trans Mountain’s workforce,” said Torgerson.
Torgerson said they are only considering the proposal because it was received favourably by health officials.
“We would never have moved anywhere close to this without the okay of Northern Health and our Chief Medical Physician,” he said.
Torgerson said the next steps would be to survey the accommodation sector to see what they have available for workers.