By Laura Keil
A number of pipeline workers are calling for the company to provide living-out-allowances (LOAs) to ease COVID-19 risk on the camp in Valemount and provide better quality of life for workers.
One worker who spoke to the Goat anonymously before the Christmas shut-down said the camp environment—with its security and restrictions—felt more like a prison than a home. He said he was even barred from grocery shopping in town.
The worker said he was concerned about the potential spread of disease in common areas of the camp, including entryways, eating areas and bathrooms.
“I’ve never seen them guys wipe anything down,” he said of the outdoor gates and turnstiles.
“Why wouldn’t they let everyone have LOA? If they did that the hotels would be full, the restaurants would be booming, and people would be a lot happier.”
Last April, after receiving advice from health officials, Valemount Council unanimously passed a motion supporting Trans Mountain workers moving into the community. Before the pandemic, many locals were concerned camp workers would compete with tourists and residents for local amenities. But with pandemic-related travel restrictions, hotels are scrambling to fill rooms and local businesses, like restaurants, are hurting.
“Businesses around town, everything is on the line for them,” said Village Councillor Hollie Blanchette during that April meeting. “As long as safety is number one. There are a few of them worried they are not going to be able to make it.”
One worker said an LOA would kill multiple birds with one stone: reduce transmission risk in a camp setting; improve workers’ quality of life; and support the town’s struggling economy.
Several camp workers complained about the food—that much of it is deep-friend.
“It’s oily, it’s greasy. Half these guys are going to have heart attacks in the next few years. You can’t live off that.”
“Some people like camp, some don’t,” a worker we spoke to said. “They should give people the option.”
No LOAs for camp communities
Workers in communities with accommodation camps will not be offered living-out-allowances, Trans Mountain told the Goat in an email Monday.
Company communications person Ali Hounsell said their policy is for all the workforce to stay in the Valemount camp.
“In terms of our policy on LOA, we have provided direction to all our workforce and all our contractors workforce that workers must reside in camp communities where available (Valemount and Clearwater). LOA is only for those where a camp is not available.”
She said Trans Mountain’s first priority will always be the health and safety of their workforce, their families and the communities.
Hounsell said all camp communities have qualified medical practitioners, quarantine wings and workers follow strict COVID-19 protocols.
She notes they haven’t had a COVID-19 outbreak at any of their worksites or camp communities and only one COVID-19 case at their Valemount camp community.
“Trans Mountain and our construction contractors for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project have been working diligently together to ensure adherence to all advice and direction from government and health officials both provincially and federally.”
The Valemount camp community has an occupancy limit of 600 workers, and a spokesperson said 450 workers were residing there before the Christmas shut-down.
According to their September 2020 Socio-Economic Monitoring Report, the company paid over $4 million in accommodation payments to workers in the North Thompson region—that includes worker accommodation nights at home, at local accommodations and at camp communities.
Re-start depends on COVID plan
In the wake of several COVID-19 outbreaks at northern B.C. work camps in December, the Province ordered five major construction projects in the north, including the Valemount Trans Mountain operation, to delay their start-up after the holidays.
“The risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 arising from the mass return of large numbers of workers to worksites and industrial camps associated with the projects constitutes a health hazard under the Public Health Act,” the Dec. 29th public health order says.
The Order says each project must submit a “restart plan” and abide by the return dates set out in the Order.
The Order says “Close contact between large numbers of people living or working together is associated with significant increases in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and increases in the number of people who develop COVID-19 and become seriously ill.”
It also says the rapid increase in infections associated with large scale industrial projects in the Northern Health Authority region has led to outbreaks, transmission to communities, including Indigenous communities, and increased the risk of hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, and deaths in the Northern Health Authority region.
As a result, hundreds of workers on the Valemount spread have been laid off with unclear re-start dates. In the Provincial Order, amended Jan 12th 2021, the Valemount camp and Trans Mountain spread 3 and 4A were restricted to adding 300 workers (to the baseline of 65) starting Jan 22nd, to reach 480 by late January.
Trans Mountain has touted its strict hygiene protocols including temperatures check for every worker leaving and entering the accommodation camp on Whiskey Fill or entering the compound across from the Best Western
Hotel and COVID-19 tests for all workers returning after the break.
Vaccines in sight
According to B.C.’s vaccine plan released Jan. 22, people between the ages of 18 and 64 who are front-line essential workers or work in certain industries may be included in the later part of Phase 3, which is projected to be
April-July. It’s unclear whether pipeline workers would fall into this category or if workers would be vaccinated by age starting in Phase 4, like everyone else.
Last March, Dr. Bonnie Henry said most industrial work camp sites had reduced staff had introduced measures to avoid exposure between employees.
“I think it’s important to recognize you can’t just abandon a large mine or a large industrial site. That’s not safe … for the local communities or the environment,” she said.