Montana Public Radio

Tribes Worry Keystone Pipeline 'Man Camps' Will Further Spread Coronavirus

Apr 3, 2020
Originally published on April 3, 2020 5:21 pm

A Canadian company’s announcement this week that it plans to move forward with construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline in northern Montana has nearby Native American tribes and some locals concerned that the flow of workers could carry the novel coronavirus into a community with limited health care resources.

Local public health officials say they’re ok for now and business owners are looking ahead to the added customer base.

Businesses in Glasgow hope that the influx of workers could be lucrative in the community of roughly 3,300 people. Right now there are fewer than 100 workers, all of them from the United States, according to Keystone XL developer TC Energy.

Cottonwood Inn & Suites owner Rob Brunelle says the construction workers occupy the majority of his 65 rooms right now.

“We’re way down all the way around so it’s nice having them here,” Brunelle said. 

He says, from what he’s heard, workers are doing preliminary work that’ll lead to building man camps.

TC Energy spokesperson Sara Rabern says the company plans to begin construction on the thousand-plus mile pipeline in Phillips County. TC energy says the pipeline would transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada down into Nebraska starting in 2023.

Montana counties in its path anticipate a financial boost from the controversial pipeline, one they say is even more sorely needed amid business closures and travel restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Phillips County Commissioner Richard Dunbar says construction would be a big addition to the county’s funding base in the form of property tax. Valley County spokesperson Todd Young says it’s a similar situation in his county.

“And obviously if there wasn’t a COVID situation here, there would be a major economic impact to our businesses in town," Young said. 

Darrell Morehouse owns D & G Sports and Western Wear in Glasgow and says he hopes the construction brings in a lot of new customers.

“We’ve had a few workers already in the store buying some warmer clothing and steel-toed boots," Morehouse said. 

He says he’s comfortable in believing workers aren’t bringing coronavirus into the population, although he adds that’s not to say they won’t.

“They tell me that they are tested every day. They have their temperature taken and now they’re wearing a pink wristband if they’ve been here over 14 days so you know who they are," Morehouse said. 

Valley County health officer Dr. Anne Millard says the county hands the pink bands out to newcomers who’ve been through the county’s required health protocol.

“The ones who are actually staying here and those are to self quarantine for 14 days and then if they’re an essential worker, they can go to their job and then go back home," Millard said. 

The Cottonwood Inn’s Rob Brunelle says the hotel has worked closely with Millard on ways to limit contact with those quarantined workers, including paying over the phone, leaving food at their doors and installing a sneeze guard around the front desk area.

That’s on top of other rules that TC Energy’s primary contractor, Barnard Construction out of Bozeman, Montana, has established for workers like logging in and out of work sites, social-distancing and self-reporting.

Millard, who’s a family doctor at Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital, says the county-wide protocol is aimed at protecting Valley County’s most vulnerable residents.

“We’re always concerned about the elderly, which is a big portion of our population in this county. We’re also worried about those who are taking chemotherapy - we do that at our hospital - or other people are on immunocompromising agents for their medical problems," Millard said. 

Frances Mahon Deaconess is a critical access hospital, which means it has 25 beds total. Millard says two of those are ICU beds and the hospital has four ventilators.

“For now, we’re okay," she said. 

Gov. Steve Bullock on Apr. 3 said he shares some people’s concern about workers and their families potentially bringing the COVID-19 illness into counties currently reporting no known cases. But he added construction is considered essential work under his stay-at-home order and that he’s been in touch with local officials, TC Energy and Barnard Construction.

“I’ve further asked our chief medical officer of the state to coordinate with Valley County to evaluate the measures they’ve put in place," Bullock said. 

But nearby tribes and those along the pipeline’s planned route are worried.

At the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which overlaps with Valley County, Chairman Floyd Azure of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes says he’s concerned about the possible risk of infection.

Attorney Matthew Campbell, who represents the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, says his clients have declared a state of emergency for the virus.

“Part of what we have submitted to the court is the concern about the gathering of these man camps with many people are working together and working on the pipelines and are near these tribal communities which are general at risk communities in general anyway," Campbell said. 

Campbell represents the tribes in an ongoing lawsuit against TC Energy on the grounds that the pipeline would cross tribally-owned land and therefore violate their land rights.

He says U.S. District Judge Brian Morris will hear the case remotely on Apr. 16, but it’s possible that the case could be decided before then.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.