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Tar Sands/Oil Sands ‘Man Camp’ Drives COVID-19 Spread to Five Provinces

Dru Oja Jay/Dominion

While actions taken to contain the COVID-19 outbreak at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake tar sands/oil sands mine seem to have slowed infection rates, both labour and community officials are calling for a ban on fly-in workers, a labour model that has proven literally deadly in its power to both incubate and spread the virus.

As of May 13, a little over a month after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed [1] at the Kearl Lake mine, 107 workers had contracted the virus, while “cases linked to the site have been found in four provinces besides Alberta, and triggered an outbreak in northern Saskatchewan,” reports [2] Thomson Reuters. That outbreak killed two Indigenous Elders, according to news reports.

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“Bad enough trying to manage an infection when employees are working and living shoulder-to-shoulder in work camps,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “It’s even more difficult to manage when those workers are jumping on planes and flying home to hundreds of communities across the country.” 

But shutting own the so-called “man camps” would “upend a labour model the industry depends on,” notes Thomson Reuters. About 15 tar sands/oil sands projects in northern Alberta, accounting for 60% of the region’s production capacity, currently rely on fly-in workers. The labour practice began growing in the mid-2000s “as the booming oilsands looked for cost-efficient ways to deploy labour, finding that paying workers living allowances to commute from Fort McMurray was too costly.” 

Mapping the chronology of the Kearl Lake outbreak, the Globe and Mail writes [4] that in mid-March, “companies that operate the fly-in, fly-out camps and lodges where workers live in close quarters ratcheted up efforts to keep the virus at bay.” The operators put an end to communal meals and introduced pre-travel questionnaires and physical distancing measures.

But such efforts proved futile, writes the Globe. By April 15, Kearl Lake had three confirmed cases, then 12 by April 17. By May 8, the number of infected workers had “surpassed 100, including 23 located beyond Alberta’s borders in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia.” Another news report cites [5] cases in Newfoundland and Labrador.

At least three infected workers went home La Loche, Saskatchewan, a Dene community of some 2,800 people located 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. More than 130 people have since been infected, and two residents have died. Unidentified communities in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Alberta have also been exposed.

The outbreak in La Loche is “particularly concerning” to Canada’s public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, reports the Globe. “First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities face a higher risk of ‘severe outcomes’ from COVID-19, given health care inequities, higher rates of underlying medical conditions, and challenges of remote and fly-in communities,” the paper says. Provincial health authorities are working together to identify and trace all Kearl Lake workers, and anyone who went to the camp after March 15 has been ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.

As the fossil industry efforts ramps up its efforts to protect workers from COVID-19, it’s taking “the bulk” of its response measures from the large outbreak at a Cargill meat packing plant in High River, south of Calgary.

“Roughly half of the slaughterhouse’s 2,000 employees have tested positive for the virus, with two deaths linked to the site,” writes the Globe. “In a bid to avoid such a massive outbreak at Kearl Lake, which has about 1,450 essential workers onsite, [the Alberta Heath Service] started a rapid testing program in conjunction with Imperial on April 22.”

Alberta Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has praised the program, adds the Globe, noting that it “identified a number of cases where people had mild symptoms or none at all, which allowed the province to step up its contact tracing to make sure anyone at risk of exposure was identified and kept away from others.”

Meanwhile, five cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed as of May 14 at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon tar sands/oil sands mine and upgrader, Bloomberg reports [6].

While a complete ban on fly-in/fly-out camps could be challenging due to the remoteness of many sites, some fossil workers are pointing to the high infection rate at Kearl Lake as proof that changes need to be made.

“These camps are like a cruise ship,” heavy equipment operator and union president Walter Ticas told Thomson Reuters. “You’re very confined to them, and it’s very hard to keep them clean.”

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