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Revealed: Health Officials’ Worries about Pipeline Company’s COVID Plans

After an 18-month FOI battle, The Tyee learned of Northern Health’s concerns about safety plans for work camps.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 8 Jul 2022TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Two weeks before B.C.’s Northern Health authority declared a COVID-19 outbreak at two work camps for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, it wrote the project’s parent company identifying “opportunities for improvement” in its pandemic response.

The Dec. 4, 2020, letter to TC Energy, which is just over one page, notes the growing urgency to control the spread of COVID-19 and “protect the health and wellness of residents and visitors.”

The letter expressed concerns about “corporate accountability, plan coherence and communications.” It was sent by Northern Health chief medical health officer Dr. Jong Kim to Coastal GasLink’s vice-president of project delivery, Amir Hadzic.

Clusters of the virus had begun appearing in work camps for the 670-kilometre gas pipeline under construction in northern B.C.

And northern communities — including Indigenous communities — had expressed concerns about the risk of COVID transmission from work camps.

The document was included in a 74-page response provided by the health authority a year after The Tyee made a request through freedom of information laws and following two complaints to B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

The health authority withheld an additional 25 pages under Sections 13 and 14 of B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The sections protect legal and policy advice provided to a public body.

The released documents reveal that nine months into the pandemic, Northern Health had concerns with the lack of information being shared by the pipeline company with health officials.

They also show that some health officials were concerned about how quickly the pipeline company resumed operations after the province ordered a phased restart for industry at the beginning of 2021.

“Northern Health is identifying opportunities for improvement, particularly in areas of corporate accountability, plan coherence and communications,” Kim wrote in the Dec. 4 letter.

“We have concerns about the adequacy of the COVID-related decision-making and the coherency of COVID plan implementation for Main 9A [work camp],” Kim wrote. “I expect that the practices developed in relation to our work on accountability, plan coherence and communication are deployed across your pipeline project and that your actions taken are reported back to Northern Health.”

The letter also suggests Coastal GasLink begin publicly reporting COVID-19 cases, something already underway at LNG Canada and BC Hydro’s Site C projects. The pipeline builder began its own public reporting of cases days later.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Coastal GasLink and our five prime contractors have been leading the way in implementing industry-best practices,” it said in the first post to its COVID-19 reporting page on Dec. 10, 2020, adding that the company and its medical provider had “collaborated closely with Northern Health and other agencies every step of the way.”

Asked to respond to Northern Health’s concerns over its pandemic response, Coastal GasLink underscored its focus on health and safety and pointed to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic.

“The continuously evolving COVID-19 pandemic was an event that was never experienced before which created challenges across the province, including on our project and within local communities,” a spokesperson said via email, adding the company was in daily contact with health authorities and medical service providers to implement “robust and proven health and safety protocols designed in accordance with public health guidelines.”

Northern Health media relations manager Eryn Collins said the health authority was in “ongoing and regular contact” with industrial projects regarding pandemic response planning, guidance for COVID-19 surveillance and testing and worker isolation protocols.

“The letter to CGL identified opportunities for improvement in pandemic response plans and actions, identified during ongoing meetings and discussions with the company,” Collins said.

Concerns about work camps continuing to operate in the North despite fears they could spread COVID-19 to remote communities were first raised early in the pandemic. The workforce accommodations, which can host hundreds of workers, were permitted to continue operating after the province declared large industrial projects like Coastal GasLink, LNG Canada and Site C essential services in March 2020. Workers travelled to and from the camps from across the province, increasing the risk of transmission.

By late November, Chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en community of Witset were calling on the province to close the camps as COVID-19 cases began to spread, brought in by workers travelling between camp and the community.

In its Dec. 4 letter, Northern Health called on Coastal GasLink to be “more readily transparent and forthcoming” in its information-sharing with health officials and to “meaningfully engage” local communities in its pandemic response.

The day after sending the letter, Kim emailed B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and deputy provincial health officer Dr. Brian Emerson to tell them about the “letter of expectation to Coastal GasLink to improve co-ordination and communication of COVID-19 response.”

“CGL project spans across northern B.C. with multiple sites, and it has been challenging to have good awareness of their situation and managing it,” Kim said. “They currently have two clusters, one near Houston (with at least six cases) and the other near Vanderhoof (at least three cases).”

Kim added that 9A Lodge, a work camp about 100 kilometres southwest of Houston, had five COVID-19 cases “associated with Witset First Nations community.”

On Dec. 19, 2020, Northern Health declared an outbreak at two Coastal GasLink work camps east of 9A Lodge — 7 Mile Lodge near Burns Lake and Little Rock Lake Lodge near Fraser Lake.

The company announced that it would close three of its work camps — 7 Mile Lodge, Little Rock Lake Lodge and Huckleberry Lodge — to all but essential employees “as a proactive measure and out of an abundance of caution,” sending workers home as the holidays approached.

An email, with only the header information readable and the rest blacked out.
Northern Health regional manager of health and resource development Chelan Zirul sent an email to chief medical health officer Dr. Jong Kim with the subject line RISK: CGL provisional approval. It was almost entirely redacted in the FOI documents.

One worker later told the The Tyee that he was swabbed and sent home, only to learn he had tested positive for COVID-19 after exposing his family. “Why would you wait until the last day and then test everybody? Meanwhile, it’s too late. The people that got home probably infected their families,” he said.

For a year and a half, The Tyee has fought to better understand how the province managed COVID-19 cases in northern work camps and how it tracked spread of the virus from the camps.

Those efforts began Jan. 4, 2021, with a freedom of information request to B.C.’s Ministry of Health asking for the total number of in-community COVID-19 transmissions that had been traced back to work camps for Coastal GasLink, LNG Canada and Site C.

That request was forwarded to the BC Centre for Disease Control. The centre told The Tyee in February that it should be directed to Northern Health.

In March 2021, The Tyee made the request to Northern Health. One year later, after two complaints to the OIPC, the health authority responded that it couldn’t provide the records because it “did not look for in-community transmissions associated with the camps/worksites.”

While awaiting a response to the initial request, The Tyee filed a second request on June 4, 2021, that asked Northern Health for all internal communications related to COVID-19 at work camps for LNG Canada, Coastal GasLink and Site C.

When the health authority did not respond by late September, The Tyee filed a complaint with the OIPC. Northern Health responded by issuing a $7,500 fee estimate to collect the documents, calling the request “broad and vague.”

Facilitated by the OIPC, The Tyee worked with Northern Health to narrow the request, reducing it to only correspondence between the health authority and the Office of the Provincial Health Officer regarding the Coastal GasLink outbreak. The health authority lowered its fee estimate to $840. The OIPC sided with The Tyee’s argument that releasing the documents would be in the public interest, further reducing the cost by half.

It then asked the health authority to sign a legal document agreeing to release the records by June 20. Northern Health released roughly half the records on that date and the remainder a week later. The Tyee has asked the OIPC to review the health authority’s decision to withhold the remaining 25 pages, a process that could take several months.

Requests for pandemic-related information have met similar resistance in other parts of the province.

Last month, CTV News reported on its “year-long tug-of-war” with health authorities in the Lower Mainland for COVID-19 outbreak reporting, including two freedom of information requests and a review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. It described confusion over who is responsible for records, denial of the existence of records that later materialized and documents heavily redacted upon release.

BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau believes COVID-19 has exposed a general reluctance within the provincial government to share information.

She placed responsibility for greater transparency around the province’s pandemic response on Health Minister Adrian Dix, saying health officials need to “show their work” in order to build public trust.

“Ultimately, the minister needs to be accountable for this. He needs to make it clear where he stands on public access to public data, and data that is, in my opinion, very important for navigating a pandemic,” she said.

“People need to be able to make informed decisions, understand how to reduce their own risk,” she said. “If there’s a vacuum of information, people will fill that in, and then we get into a situation where it’s hard to figure out what’s reliable information anymore.”

In the fall, the province passed new legislation and began charging a $10 fee for freedom of information requests, saying it would streamline the process. Others have argued that more resources are needed to process the requests.

Furstenau believes the situation is getting worse instead of better.

“A democracy really is meant to be about a relationship between government and the public, and that relationship has to be constantly maintained through building trust, and you build trust by not hiding information,” she said.

The Coastal GasLink outbreak was declared over on Jan. 22, 2021. In total, 56 people tested positive in association with the two work camps, a number that does not include spread of the virus from camps into northern communities.

At the time, the company faced public health orders that restricted its return to operations until it had completed a restart plan, to be approved by health officials with Northern Health and the province.

It submitted its restart plan to health officials on Jan. 27, according to the recent FOI response. Four days later, Northern Health responded, saying it had done a “rapid initial review” of the plan and that a more detailed review was underway.

“We are aware that a short turn-around response to you with regards to your plan to bring workers back to the project is needed,” the email from Kim and Emerson said. “Therefore we are pleased to inform you that your project has received provisional approval of the workforce remobilization portion of your restart plan.”

In an email later the same day, TC Energy vice-president of stakeholder relations Tom Syer thanked the Northern Health team for “expediting the review.”

“This mobilization will take several weeks to roll-out and in the interim, we look forward to completing the review of the remaining Restart Plan components,” Syer said.

But some Northern Health staff quietly expressed misgivings.

“It weighs on me the provisional approval to CGL,” Chelan Zirul, regional manager of health and resource development, wrote as Northern Health sent its conditional approval to TC Energy.

“I think it’s prudent given the rapid increase (literally within a week) that we reinforce [that] safety protocols are attended to the greatest and most stringent levels. This risk (as we have already verbally accepted amongst ourselves) is one that we are accepting, and I think it’s prudent that we raise [this] risk… to their attention.”

An email sent an hour later by Zirul to Northern Health officials with the subject heading “RISK: CGL provisional approval” was almost entirely redacted in the health authority’s response to The Tyee.

On Feb. 8, according to the emails, Northern Health approved Coastal GasLink’s restart plan. The province followed the next day.

When asked about the concerns raised by Zirul, Northern Health’s Collins said similar concerns were “clearly laid out” in the Dec. 29 provincial health order requiring a phased restart to major industrial projects in the region and a Jan. 12, 2021, order for industrial camps, which notes “a rapid increase” in COVID-19 cases associated with industrial projects.

“In late 2020 and early 2021, public health officials both in the North and provincially shared concerns about industrial project-related increases in COVID-19 infections, clusters and outbreaks, and transmission of COVID to surrounding communities,” Collins said.

Coastal GasLink said it was responding to new challenges as they arose.

“As we continued to face unprecedented challenges, it was important that we learned and adjusted our plans for effectiveness and implement improvements, as necessary,” it said. “We are committed to making sure our workers and surrounding Indigenous and local communities are safe.”  [Tyee]

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