Thousands of workers returning to LNG megaproject in northern B.C., with mandatory COVID-19 testing in place

British Columbia

More than 3,000 workers are set to return to jobs on a natural gas pipeline and export terminal in northern B.C. by the end of March. LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink say they're rolling out mandatory COVID-19 testing for workers.

Crews were on the job during the pandemic, building a Coastal GasLink work camp near Vanderhoof, B.C., in June 2020. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

More than 3,000 industrial workers are set to arrive this month at work camps and construction sites at an energy megaproject in northern B.C., with the majority coming from outside the region.

That's according to LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink, as work on their $46-billion natural gas pipeline and LNG export terminal ramps up after slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The influx of workers has raised concerns from residents about the risk of coronavirus transmission in communities close to work sites and camps.

But LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink, who are partners in the project to move natural gas from northeast B.C. to the province's North Coast for export to Asia, say that's being mitigated by the rollout of mandatory COVID testing for all workers, whether they're symptomatic or not.

This work camp, the Cedar Valley Lodge, will eventually be able to accomodate 4,500 workers at the LNG Canada site in Kitimat, a small community with a population of just over 8,000 people. (LNG Canada/Contributed)

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry permitted LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink to gradually increase the number of workers on site earlier this year, under stringent conditions. By the end of March, the number of people working on the pipeline and export terminal is scheduled to increase to almost 6,000 from fewer than 1,000 at the start of the year.

Even while operating with reduced staff, the mega project wasn't immune to the spread of COVID-19.

Northern Health declared four different COVID-19 outbreaks at Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada work sites or camps between November and January, with a total of 128 workers infected.

Airport testing

To allay fears of potential future outbreaks, company-funded rapid testing is ramping up for fly-in workers from outside the region, with testing in place at airports in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ontario.

An LNG Canada spokesperson says the company has already administered antigen tests to 1,700 workers before they boarded charter flights at the Edmonton and Calgary airports.

The company said out-of-town workers are prohibited from leaving the job site except to return home on their days off, and they will be re-tested each time they return to the region. They're also barred from visiting local businesses.

Local workers will be tested every three weeks, said LNG Canada, which is already operating three on-site private health clinics with COVID-19 isolation wings.

A worker is tested for COVID-19 at Coastal GasLink's Vanderhoof Lodge work camp. (Pop Media Inc/Contributed)

Coastal GasLink said it has started testing employees at two work camps using PCR testing, which can deliver results within 48 hours, and plans to expand that to workers along the pipeline's 670-kilometre construction route.

"This is another layer of protection, to keep our workforce and communities safe," said Michael Gibb, Coastal GasLink's director of health, safety and security.

Previously, the private sector wasn't able to requisition test kits and labs, Gibb said.

"In the early days of the pandemic, any available testing and supplies, the government immediately grabbed, as they should, for public health," he said.

An on-site medical professional with Coastal GasLink conducts a daily health screening for COVID symptoms. The company says the addition of COVID-19 testing adds 'another layer of protection.' (Coastal GasLink/contributed)

'Cadillac private health system'

But Dr. David Bowering, a retired chief medical health officer with Northern Health who lives in the region, says the elevated risk of transmission remains.

He also said it's unfair that mega projects like these can afford to "import this deluxe, Cadillac private health system and level of testing," while the public health system is "rationing COVID testing for people just doing ordinary things like trying to run restaurants and stores."

"It doesn't feel right, the granting of essential service status to these huge projects … while everything else stops and shuts down and changes so dramatically," Bowering said.

Coastal GasLink's Gibb said it's up to public health officials to determine if there's a need for expanded community testing.

Last year, LNG Canada donated $500,000 for COVID-19 response measures in Kitimat, Terrace, and local Indigenous communities.

A member of Coastal GasLink's testing crew prepares a COVID-19 test sample during a training session in northern B.C. in February. (Pop Media Inc/Contributed)

District of Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth welcomes the return of workers to his community, where the LNG export terminal is under construction.

"It's good to see they're going to start ramping up again and get the project back on track," Germuth told CBC News. "Honestly, I haven't had a single person come to me with concerns."

Germuth said LNG Canada's new testing protocols make him "very confident that … everything will go as smoothly as it can."

Three other large industrial projects in northern B.C. have also been granted permission by provincial health officials to increase their work force.

A spokesperson for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project said the company expects as many as 1,000 workers will be on the job in the Valemount area, between Jasper and Prince George, within the next three months, as work proceeds on twinning an oil pipeline between Alberta and Burnaby, B.C..

In the Kitimat area, Rio Tinto's B.C. Works project is planning for a "gradual ramp-up … when it is safe to do so," a company spokesperson told CBC News.

A spokesperson for BC Hydro's Site C dam project near Fort St. John said the number of workers on site is expected to increase to more than 2,300 in the coming weeks, with additional workers expected in summer.

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the national network Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry. She also covered the 2010 Paralympics for national radio news.

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