NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose riding includes Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask generating station, northeast of Split Lake, isn’t convinced that the Crown corporation’s plans to scale back construction goes far enough to protect workers and area residents during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I appreciate the measures that Manitoba Hydro has taken with respect to the Keeyask construction site,” Ashton wrote in a letter to Manitoba Hydro CEO Jay Grewal. “I applaud you for taking proactive measures but our region is particularly vulnerable and we must do everything we can to limit the spread of COVID-19. Workers who have been in Keeyask and the surrounding First Nations, Northern Affairs and urban communities in our region are concerned that the situation at Keeyask continues to put people at risk.”
Manitoba Hydro announced March 19 that it is scaling back work on the Keeyask generating station and suspending travel in and out of the Northern Manitoba construction camp to protect workers and residents of nearby communities from potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
The temporary reduction in personnel and implementation of the travel suspension will be completed by the end of the day March 21. About 600 supervisory, construction and support staff have volunteered to remain at the site.
The changed operations are expected to last four to eight weeks.
Prior to that decision, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that at least five employees or contractors at the site were flown south on isolated flights after displaying symptoms of possible infection by COVID-19.
Councillors and chiefs from nearby Tataskweyak Cree Nation and York Landing First Nation told the Free Press they are concerned that the Keeyask camp, which employs residents of four nearby First Nations as well as fly-in workers and contractors from across Canada and the United States, could be a pathway for the coronavirus to enter their communities.
Hydro said March 19 that any workers on site with symptoms of illness will be assessed by a nurse practitioner and isolated in a special room if they are recommended for further assessment offsite. Gym classes and intramural activities are also being suspended at the construction camp, the on-site theatre is being closed and the dining hall is only providing take-out meals. Increased cleaning protocols are also being instituted.
The Free Press reported that representatives of the nearby First Nations were told in a conference call with Hydro that, even if construction shut down, 200 people would be needed to keep the site safe.
“At a time when governments and the medical community are calling for strict measures in terms of social distancing and slowing the spread including containment measures and travel bans to stop the spread of COVID-19, I am urging Manitoba Hydro to take further steps including halting construction at Keeyask,” said Ashton in her letter to the Manitoba Hydro CEO. “I am also urging Hydro to ensure that affected workers are not only protected against the virus but supported financially if they are unable to work as a result of this unfolding pandemic.”