BC Hydro plans for 'busiest' year of Site C construction

Public health officials have yet to report any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Site C, and a public health emergency declared Tuesday isn't expected to have an impact on the dam's construction this year.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said March 17 there are now four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, their whereabouts unknown. 

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Henry did not answer whether any of those cases were identified at the Site C work camp, despite much community rumour, but said health authorities are working with BC Hydro and its contractors to ensure precautions are in place.

"I know that there's been a lot of concern about the work camp and Northern Health has been working with the operators up there to ensure all the appropriate precautions are put in place to support people to continue the work that they are doing up there," Dr. Henry said.

Both BC Hydro and Peace River Hydro Partners, the largest on-site prime contractor, say there are no presumptive, suspected, or confirmed cases reported on the project to date.

"Work on the project continues and to minimize the risk of transmission to our site we’ve implemented measures to mitigate the risk of a COVID-19 event occurring," said spokesman Dave Conway.

There were more than 4,300 in the workforce at last count in January, and the workforce will ramp up this summer in what Conway said will be its busiest construction year. Contractors are racing to complete the two tunnels needed to divert the Peace River and begin dam construction this fall and keep the project on schedule.

"All workers that are key to our critical project milestones continue their work at site," said Conway.

BC Hydro has been monitoring global developments regarding COVID-19 since January, and measures are in place to limit its spread, Conway said. That includes restrictions on non-essential employee travel and the postponement of non-essential site tours, meetings, and on-site training.

The camp gymnasium and theatre have been closed, and self-serve dining stations have been eliminated. The camp will see more frequent disinfecting and cleaning, and workers are being reminded to practice good hygiene and are being told to stay home if they are sick, Conway said.

The camp health clinic, meanwhile, is stocked with test kits and medical supplies, he said.

"The camp has the ability to comfortably isolate any workers who are awaiting test results, or who may test positive for COVID-19," Conway said.

"We continue to follow the recommendations and guidance of health authorities and are working closely with our contractors on the implementation of additional mitigation measures, as needed."

Henry said a public health emergency declaration gives her the power and tools to respond more quickly to the rapidly evolving situation in province. But it appears to have little impact on the dam's construction activities.

The terms of the emergency continues to provide guidelines for workplaces to ensure physical distances are maintained between workers, or allow workers to work remotely, she said.

"Construction work outside is not as much of a risk that we're concerned about," Henry said.

"Making sure the accommodations there are adequate to prevent transmission of infection is the most important thing that we're working with them on."

There are an estimated 3,600 workers on site, roughly 1,650 or 45% of those employed with Peace River Hydro Partners, which is responsible for the main civil works construction. 

Spokeswoman Jamie Bodnarchuk said Tuesday the company is testing it workers as necessary, and any staff returning from outside Canada are being quarantined. There have been zero suspected or confirmed cases, she said Tuesday.

Bodnarchuk said there is a misconception the company is shuttling in large numbers of employees from outside Canada. While many workers have lodgings here in Fort St. John, the majority of its workforce is from B.C., she said, and many staff travel to Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton, and Calgary.

Bodnarchuk said social distancing is being practiced on site, while staff such as office administrators and support services are being allowed to work from home. Video calls are being held to limit in-person meetings.

Vendors and material suppliers have been asked to limit their site visits to essential trips only, Bodnarchuk said, while extra cleaning staff is being hired to sanitize offices and trailers

This month, crews have been installing new housing modules at the camp as part of a planned 450-bed expansion. The expansion is scheduled to be complete this spring in time for work to ramp up in the summer, Conway said.

"We expect the year ahead will be our busiest construction year and work to expand the camp continues as planned," Conway said.

sitec
An expansion at the Site C construction camp, March 2020. - BC Hydro

This is a developing story.

Click here for the latest developments on COVID-19 in Fort St. John.

— with files from Tom Summer

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca. 

[Editor's Note: Articles corrects that there are an estimated 3,600 workers currently on site, with 45% employed with Peace River Hydro Partners.]

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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