Pipes intended for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline are shown in Gascoyne, N.D. on Wednesday April 22, 2015. TC Energy Corp. says it is going ahead with construction of its US$8-billion Keystone XL Pipeline project, with a helping hand from the Alberta government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Panetta

With U.S. border work on track, rural Canadian towns fear an outbreak

Just south of the Canadian border, workers have begun arriving to work on the 1,200-mile Keystone pipeline

Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are raising fears that the coronavirus could race through temporary camps and workers could spread it to nearby rural communities that would not be able to handle an outbreak.

Despite a clampdown on people’s movements in much of the country, groups of workers travel every day from camps in New Mexico to build President Donald Trump’s border wall.

Along the northern border, a Canadian company says it will start work this month on the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which could bring thousands of workers to rural communities in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Residents, tribal leaders and state officials have warned that the influx of outsiders could make problems worse in rural areas with little or no medical infrastructure capable of dealing with a surge of infections. Both the border wall and pipeline are exempt from stay-at-home restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the virus.

Faith Spotted Eagle, an environmental activist and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said she’s reminded of her grandmother’s stories about the tribe’s struggles to survive small pox and the Spanish flu.

“It’s the 1800s again, the cavalry is coming in and they’re going to set up their fort, whether it’s justified or not,” she said.

Cities have borne the brunt of the virus so far in the U.S., but rural areas are expected to be hit as well.

That’s a fear in tiny Columbus, New Mexico, where residents worry about the influx of border wall workers who often gather outside the town’s few restaurants while the rest of the community has been ordered to stay at home and keep their distance from others.

“My bottom line is nothing is worth thousands or hundreds or tens of people getting COVID,” said resident July McClure, who manages a local RV park and volunteers with the fire department.

In the town of less than 1,500 people, about 30 construction workers are setting up camp in tightly packed trailers, residents say. Others are staying at two small hotels while they put up bollard-style fencing along the scrub desert — a small piece of about 200 miles (320 kilometres) of barriers being built along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Adriana Zizumbo, 32, who operates a cafe, said she’s shocked to see dozens of people congregating when Columbus is on lockdown.

“It is kind of crazy because I thought they limited (gatherings) to five people or 10 people, and they’re setting up some man camps out in Columbus, and there’s about to be a lot of men in one (place),” Zizumbo said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the contractors working on the southern border, said it follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but declined to share specifics on how it’s protecting public health during construction.

Just south of the Canadian border, workers have begun arriving in the small Montana town of Glasgow to work on the 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometre) Keystone pipeline this month, according to the company and the governor’s office. The new pipeline would tie into existing infrastructure at the Nebraska-Kansas line, where it would carry crude oil south to the Gulf of Mexico for possible export.

First proposed in 2008, the pipeline was stalled for years by legal challenges and rejected twice under President Barack Obama. Trump revived it by personally approving the line’s border crossing permit, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that the provincial government was investing more than $1 billion to get work going quickly.

READ MORE: Canadian firm starts U.S. prep work for Keystone XL pipeline

Calgary-based TC Energy, the project’s sponsor, said it’s collaborating with health officials in northern Montana to minimize risks, including checking everyone entering work sites for fever and ensuring workers follow social distancing guidelines. The company says more than 10,000 construction jobs would be created by the $8 billion project, with about 100 workers initially at the border crossing.

“We’re very cognizant of what’s going on,” spokesman Terry Cunha said. “We’re talking about thousands of jobs. … We want to make sure what they do will ensure the safety of everybody.”

The company had planned to build 11 camps for workers along the pipeline’s route — six in Montana, four in South Dakota and one in Nebraska, according a U.S. State Department review of the project. Those plans were being reviewed in light of the pandemic, but they will still be required eventually, Cunha said Wednesday.

The camps would be built on open land and house up to 1,000 people, according to the State Department review.

Several tribes whose land is skirted by the proposed pipeline route in South Dakota and Montana have enacted stricter measures than the state to protect tribal members from the coronavirus. Many tribal members worry what a widespread outbreak would do to a population already at risk for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Spotted Eagle said she did not believe any promised safety measures, such as quarantining workers or regular screenings, would be enough to keep communities safe. Many health clinics have just a few beds and even fewer ventilators.

Floyd Azure, chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, said an influx of pipeline workers to northeastern Montana could accelerate the spread of the virus that has so far spared the reservation. He worries about a repeat of the problems that accompanied an oil boom in the region last decade — from drugs to sex trafficking — now exacerbated by the virus.

The pipeline would run just outside the reservation’s boundaries. Azure said he had no authority to stop the work and has been unable to convince state officials or federal lawmakers to intervene.

“We’re worried sick about it. We have enough problems on this reservation without someone creating more for us,” he said. “I don’t know and I don’t care where they’re from. I don’t think they should come here from somewhere else.”

___

Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Attanasio reported from El Paso, Texas.

Matthew Brown, Stephen Groves And Cedar Attanasio, The Associated Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Helping others, especially those struggling with mental health issues, keeps MOD Pizza owner Jim Hayden cooking. (RIck Stiebel/News Staff)
A 1900s writing box found in Greater Victoria contained ink, photos and a letter addressed to Clara McCaubry dated October 14, 1898. (Photo courtesy Suzanne Hervieux)
Mysterious 1900s writing box finds a home among Saanich Archives

Wooden chest owned by early Saanich resident Clara Isabelle McCaubry

Saanich implements single-lane traffic stretch on Prospect Lake Road along Clavert Park. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Saanich makes one-way traffic permanent on segment of Prospect Lake Road

Prospect Lake Road to close near Calvert Park Nov. 2 from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. for construction

Nicole Abbott and her 10-month-old daughter, Ophelia, shown here at the Metchosin Fire Hall for the Halloween events last year. Residents are invited to a drive-through version this year. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore fire halls take pandemic-safe approach to Halloween

One spooky lane among three drive-thru features by firefighters

For Owen Bains, having autism makes navigating the rules and social norms around COVID-19 challenging, says his mother. (Courtesy Nicole Zimmel)
Pandemic poses serious problems for children with autism, say Victoria parents

Parents of children with autism say COVID-19 is overwhelming and reducing social skills

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

A police pursuit ended with an arrest in Williams Lake on Highway 97 Sunday afternoon. (Facebook video screenshot)
Video catches police pursuit that ends with man kicked, punched in Williams Lake

A video of the arrest is getting widely shared on social media

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Oct. 20

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Most Read