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BC Hydro ‘scaling down’ work on Site C Dam amid coronavirus pandemic

Workers gather at the Site C Two Rivers work camp near Fort St. John on Monday, March 16. Submitted

Don Preece knows first-hand what it’s like to get sick while working at one of B.C.’s remote work camps.

He came down with what he said was referred to as “the Kitimat cough” for three weeks, after a virus ripped through the Rio Tinto smelter work camp in that northwestern town for three weeks in 2013.

“Twenty-one days coughing up phlegm, fevers — and they still don’t know what hit us,” he said.

“They said ‘Oh, we’ve got all the protocols in for hand washing.’ They had people in there opening the doors for us. But you can not control a 500- or 600-man camp and monitor everything that every other person touches. It’s impossible.”

READ MORE: LNG Canada winds down, Site C work presses on amid coronavirus pandemic

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On Wednesday morning, Preece’s son, who’s an ironworker, flew to the Two Rivers Site C dam work camp to join a crew of about 1,300. He said it’s time to wind down construction at the site.

Wednesday afternoon, BC Hydro said it was moving to do so in some areas.

“Over the coming days, BC Hydro will work with project contractors and unions to safely scale back certain construction activities at the project site,” said BC Hydro in a statement.

“One of the areas the project will continue to make a priority is work required to achieve river diversion in fall 2020.”

The Crown corporation said work to keep the site secure and meet environmental commitments would continue, as would off-site work on Highway 29 and transmission line and reservoir clearing.

The utility said it’s implemented protocols, including shutting the gym and ending self-service dining, to prevent the virus from spreading, but Preece said he’s doubtful.

“People just don’t understand how many things people touch every day,” he said.

“You just can’t help the spread when you’re in such close quarters working with people, living with them, and then having to eat with them in the same place.”

READ MORE: B.C. declares state of emergency in response to coronavirus pandemic

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Preece said he’s worried the camp could become a hotbed of viral infection, and he warned that people from across Canada and around the world could carry it away from the site if there is an outbreak.

On Tuesday, the B.C. Building Trades Council called for all large scale remote megaprojects to be scaled down.

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LNG Canada’s Kitimat project has already begun to wind down to essential-operations.

“Safety of workers is critical,” said B.C. Building Trades Council executive director Andrew Mercier, warning that an outbreak at Site C could overwhelm the Northern Health Authority.

“We need contractors to find those safe ways to keep operating so that critical services ― air travel, health care, construction of vital infrastructure ― can take place and support economic recovery in the months ahead.”

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It’s a message Preece echoed, saying he doesn’t understand how the camp is still in operation given provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s orders for social and physical distancing and banning all gatherings over 50 people.

B.C. officials have declared both a provincial state of emergency and a public health emergency due to COVID-19.

READ MORE: An inside look at life in the Site C work camp

“Shut it down. Shut everything down for two weeks until we can curb the thing,” he said.

“But if you’re going to have people keep travelling and going in and gathering in like 1,300, 1,400 man camps, you’re never going to stop this. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”

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