As the B.C. government developed an essential services list in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, bureaucrats tangled with how to justify ongoing construction of major industrial projects like Site C and LNG Canada, according to documents obtained by CBC News.
Internal communications show government staffers worked to rationalize allowing these projects to keep going amid widespread closures in other areas and calls from First Nations leaders and others to shut them down.
A lengthy list of essential services was released by the province in late March, services defined as "essential to preserving life, health, public safety and basic societal functioning… the services British Columbians rely on in their daily lives."
As bureaucrats reviewed the essential services list internally, then-deputy minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources Dave Nikolesjin (who has since left his job in government) asked if the province would be coming up with an exemption category.
"I can't argue Site C, LNG Canada, etc. are essential," he wrote in a March 23 email to Lori Halls, deputy minister with Emergency Management B.C.
"But they are taking exceptional steps to reduce operations to critical levels only and believe they can operate safely."
One week later — on March 30 — the province's COVID-19 task force published "interim guidelines" for industrial camps, guidelines that would later be replaced by an official order from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. The guidelines and order focused on reducing the risks of infection among people in the camps and those who live around them.
In a media briefing on March 30, Henry said that most industrial work camp sites had "gone to a very reduced staff" and were doing things like extending the length of time people were staying on-site to reduce the amount of coming and going.
She also said, "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."
By the end of September, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said it had recorded 33 COVID-19 infections among B.C. residents associated with industrial work camps in B.C. and Alberta. As of Oct. 8, B.C. had confirmed more than 10,000 total cases of the virus, according to Henry.
Retired public health official questions rationale
Retired public health officer Dr. David Bowering said the 33 cases could be an accurate representation of infections affiliated with these work sites, or only a fraction.
"It might be the so-called tip of an iceberg — those are the ones that have been tested and the contract tracing has ascertained those things," he said.
Bowering was signatory to an open letter published in April by a broad coalition of Indigenous leaders, health care workers and others calling for a halt to these construction projects, saying they're too risky to public health, in part because of the transient nature of the workers on these projects.
The letter said this "raises an unavoidable risk of work sites becoming incubators for the spread of COVID-19 onsite, during travel and in those home communities."
"In many instances, industrial work camps are located in close proximity to First Nations communities. Asymptomatic infected workers coming in and out of camps risk the transmission of the COVID-19 virus to these and other small, vulnerable communities."
Bowering said industry efforts to mitigate transmission doesn't eliminate the risk of transmission. He points to the cruise ship industry as an example of where mitigation measures couldn't stop outbreaks from occurring at sea.
"It's the movement of people and mixing with other populations that spread the virus," he said.
Bowering said the province's decision to allow these major work sites to stay open was a political move where the health of the economy was prioritized over the health of people.
"I just think that whatever interests are being served by having these projects go forward are taking precedence over the health and well-being of all the people who live in the north and of the environment in the north itself," he said.
'They're all over town'
At projects like Site C, employment statistics published by BC Hydro for June 2020 show the workforce is composed of thousands of workers, with more than a quarter identified as being from outside of B.C.
The majority of the workforce isn't from the region where construction is happening and there are hundreds of Indigenous people within the workforce as well.
In the early weeks of the pandemic there was a significant reduction in staff at Site C but the proportion of local and out-of-province workers has remained stable compared to pre-pandemic times.
According to a daily update from Site C, as of Oct. 8 there were 1,646 people in the work camp with three of those people in isolation.
Rob Alfred lives in the Wet'suwet'en community of Witset, which has just been through a lockdown after a number of people tested positive for COVID-19.
He said these days it's easy to spot out-of-town workers by the trucks they drive.
"They've got all the rental trucks; they're all over town," he said, at the gas stations, hotels, restaurants.
He said there are also people in Witset working on projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline who are coming and going regularly — rotating between work camps or hotels and then coming home for the weekend.
"The amount of people going in and out… it's definitely a health risk," said Alfred.
Province tracked complaints
The province was aware there would be concerns about work sites staying open and in the early days of the pandemic was tracking 'complaints' from local governments, First Nations and advocates.
"Local government and First Nations are mainly focused on trying to understand whether COVID is within their communities and if so, how many cases may be there and where they are coming from," someone wrote in a spreadsheet with respect to Site C.
"In absence of that information, they are "stranger wary" and see anyone, including workers, coming into their communities as a potential risk."
The province was also watching and evaluating what people were saying on social media.
"Seeing individuals on Twitter opposing continuation with the project, but those seem to be the same individuals that are vocally opposed to the project regularly," someone in government wrote into a tracking document.
With mitigation measures in place across work sites and other areas like classrooms public health officials remain focused on slowing the transmission of COVID-19.
But Bowering said industrial camps will continue to be a risk factor for speeding up transmission and the question he has is, "are we comfortable with that?"