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Rick Koechl & Mike Kroecher: Can coronavirus concerns be contained at Site C?

Strange times! We are all transitioning into our separate brave new worlds, as we begin to understand all the implications of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease. There is nothing theoretical about it any more. We are in the thick of things.
Inside of of two river diversion tunnels at Site C, a slip form places concrete. BC Hydro has scaled back much of its construction on the Peace River in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and focused its attention on completing its river diversion systems to meet a fall deadline.

Strange times! We are all transitioning into our separate brave new worlds, as we begin to understand all the implications of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease. There is nothing theoretical about it any more. We are in the thick of things.

We are being required to stay at home if possible and maintain a two-metre bubble of social distancing. That has been hammered home unrelentingly by B.C.’s Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Minister of Health Adrian Dix.

Yet, the government has mandated the ongoing construction of Site C as an essential service. This will allow workers to remain on site in contrast to what the rest of us and businesses deemed non-essential are being asked: To comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

This may not come as a surprise to many who know that BC Hydro is aiming to divert the Peace River by September, 2020. Without this re-classification of the project to essential, the diversion tunnel construction would have ground to a halt until further notice. A figure of $600 million has been bandied about regarding the cost of even a one-year delay.

In the meantime, the City of Fort St. John voted recently to declare a state of emergency, which could have dramatically affected the Site C workplace. Days later, the NDP government rescinded this order.

Dr. David Bowering, a medical doctor and former public health officer for the Northern Health region, along with local First Nations leaders wrote very compelling letters to Dr. Henry regarding that very question about shuttering work camps, including Site C, until this pandemic is under control.

Dr. Bowering ‘s request was quickly rebuffed by Dr. Henry, who concluded that “"Northern Health has been very active working with the industrial camps in the north to reduce the risks.”

The devil is always in the details of how Northern Health, and WorkSafeBC, are managing to accomplish this task. Dr. Henry also stated the following: “construction sites are not as high risk an environment because they’re mostly outdoors.” This may well be true for 12 hours of each day.

However, a recent CBC story suggests that workers on the job cannot maintain the two-metre distance for workplace safety reasons. The source made the following comment stating that most jobs are “impossible to do” and “usually unsafe” if not performed with others in close quarters.

What about the other 12 hours of confined camp life? Little has been said about “self isolating” regarding meals or socializing during off time.

In that same CBC article, another individual points out that cafeteria tables are far too close and small. He stated that there were 200 people in the dining room and that, “No matter where you go, you're not maintaining that six-feet rule.”

Many of the other public spaces within the camp have been closed. Martin Cavin wrote a response in the Vancouver Sun recently stating, “the work camp (Site C) is like a cruise ship on land, with workers sharing common facilities. No outbreak has been contained, even after all the passengers were quarantined in their rooms.”

According to local sources, all workers entering the Site C work place will have their temperature taken. This is fine if the person has symptoms. Medical experts are now telling the public to be aware that you might be asymptomatic for many days and still be contagious to others. Is public health really willing to take that risk?

Skeleton crews numbers are going up: On March 30, the number hovered around 800. On Monday, the numbers had burgeoned to 993. Some workers are returning from overseas. Will they be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine and also be tested?

Will BC Hydro be required to report any or all COVID-19 positive tests to the general public or not? Will those numbers coming from Site C be meshed with the rest of northern B.C., as they have been so far?

Air Canada very recently cancelled all flights into Fort St. John until April 30. Central Mountain Air just recently joined that list. That leaves WestJet, one of the few larger carriers to shuttle workers to and from the work site. Airports and planes are clearly not conducive to a two-metre isolation bubble.

Many of us are giving social isolation our very best shot. It seems that work sites such as Site C have, however, have been given a free pass.

We want to protect all those dedicated workers who truly are essential, by giving them the best possible odds of staying healthy. They deserve our communal best efforts by us self-isolating and staying home.

In light of the first identified case of COVID-19 within the Fort St. John area, we all really need to maintain the same consistent vigilance considering this infected individual was a frontline health worker.

We need to give our humblest gratitude and support to each and every caregiver, emergency responder, and essential worker, not additional worries. 

Mike Kroecher is a long retired resident of the Peace, expressing his deep roots in the land through his art. Rick Koechl is a recently retired teacher of the Peace with an enthusiasm for politics and energy.