As Enbridge Energy begins construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota, opponents of the project have asked Gov. Tim Walz to halt its progress due to the possibility that an influx of thousands of workers could spread COVID-19 in hard-hit rural areas.
Enbridge and labor unions working on the $2.6 billion project contend they’re taking necessary precautions to keep COVID-19 at bay, recently putting out an updated plan for limiting spread of the disease, and the Walz administration has long held that construction personnel are essential workers, allowing the industry to operate through the pandemic.
But the request for a halt in building Line 3 — made by environmental advocacy groups along with several tribal governments and some health professionals — has touched off a debate over the safety of moving ahead with one of the state’s biggest projects, one larger than the construction of the $1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Tribal, health officials worry about coronavirus spread
Enbridge says the Line 3 project will create about 4,000 jobs over the course of construction, with about half of those positions being filled by local workers.
The 36-inch pipeline will run 337 miles through northern Minnesota, ending at a terminal in Superior, Wisc. There are several existing Enbridge pipelines that cross Minnesota, and Line 3 is intended to replace a smaller, 34-inch pipeline built in the 1960s that is running at half-capacity because it’s considered a dangerous spill risk.
On Friday, Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said about 1,600 people are already working on construction of Line 3, and Enbridge expects its workforce to ramp up over time and hit a peak near the end of January, according to documents the company filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Pipeline opponents have said a rush of workers living in close quarters throughout the region could accelerate COVID-19 spread and strain the health care system in regions that have already been pummeled by the pandemic.
Line 3 will cross parts of 13 counties in northern Minnesota, ten of which were above the statewide average for cases per 10,000 residents in mid-November, which is the most recent data available from the state. Polk County had the highest weekly case rate of those counties at 125.7, which is the eighth-worst in the state.
Several of those 13 pipeline counties have seen a large spike in deaths in November and early December. Hubbard County, for instance, had four deaths between March and Oct. 29, but had reported 31 total deaths through Sunday. Aitkin County had reported just two deaths by Oct. 29 but had reported 30 total deaths through Sunday.
MN350, an environmental advocacy group, circulated a petition last week saying “a major outbreak in a rural area with limited health care capacity such as Aitkin County … will have ripple effects across our entire state healthcare infrastructure.”
Nearly 200 people the organization says are associated with health care signed the document calling for a stay on construction, including doctors, nurses and epidemiologists — but also medical and nursing students, veterinarians, a teacher, a union organizer and a dentist.
Also signing the letter was the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, which represents more than 2,000 family physicians in the state, as well as students and other members. “At this time, a large influx of outside workers has the potential to overwhelm our healthcare system that is already strained with COVID-related hospitalizations,” said Dr. Andrew Slattengren, president of the group, in an email. Slattengren practices at Broadway Family Medicine in Minneapolis and is a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Michael Fairbanks, Chairman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, sent a letter to Walz last week saying the pandemic has become worse on the tribe’s reservation and the areas around it, and the availability of nearby hospital and ICU beds has shrunk. Fairbanks said the main referral destination for serious and critically ill White Earth members, in Fargo, N.D., often can’t accept transports anymore “because no ICU or general hospital beds are available for them or anyone else.”
Tribal governments in the region have also warned construction could also bring a rush of protestors to the area, raising the risk of COVID-19 spreading higher, though activists and tribes haven’t encouraged large gatherings.
Enbridge’s COVID-19 prevention plan
Enbridge maintains it can reduce health concerns through a detailed COVID-19 prevention plan, and says that when construction is fully underway, the thousands of pipeline workers won’t all be concentrated in one place.
People will be deployed in “spreads” across the pipeline route, according to the company’s COVID-19 plan. Each of those spreads will have between 35 to 40 crews, with each crew made up of 20 or so workers. The crews typically won’t be at a worksite at the same time, the Enbridge COVID-19 plan says. When one crew completes its work at a site, the next crew will come in to start their job.
The company also needs to build eight pump stations, which require three to five crews with five to 10 people in them, the company says.
Each crew will be in a “bubble”: They are not supposed to interact with people in other bubbles on or off the job, according to Enbridge plans. In all, Enbridge estimates there will be an average of 12 workers per mile across the pipeline route.
Enbridge also wrote physical distancing guidelines for workers, such as maintaining six-feet of separation “when reasonably possible.” The company also will use “physical distancing coordinator(s)” to oversee spacing efforts during construction.
Workers have to wear masks or other face coverings on the job unless they’re alone, and Enbridge says masks will be “clearly and continually encouraged” off the job when people can’t maintain physical distance.
In addition to other precautions, Enbridge says it has developed its own testing program for workers that does not tap into state testing resources. Workers will get a PCR test — considered the most accurate — when they first show up at their job site, and another test about seven days later. From then, workers will be tested every two weeks or if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
The company will have its own contact tracing team but will also work with the Minnesota Department of Health on those case investigations. Quarantine for people exposed to the virus and isolation for those who are sick is mandatory.
Enbridge says it will have “Medi-Camps” along the pipeline route for people with non-critical medical needs, and the company plans to send workers home when they have more serious health issues unless they need care quickly.
Off the job, Enbridge says its workers will be expected to run only essential errands such as picking up food, getting gasoline or banking.
Construction site safety during a pandemic
Minnesota, like many states, has deemed construction to be an essential industry that has operated throughout the pandemic. There are examples of outbreaks on construction sites around the country. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported in August that 75 workers at the SoFi Stadium project had contracted COVID-19 over a period of several months. The Times reported 4,000 workers had been on site since March.
Kellner, the Enbridge spokeswoman, said the company ran nearly 1,000 COVID-19 tests during 12 miles of pipeline construction on Line 3 in North Dakota, which lasted from August to mid-October. Kellner said they reported six positive cases, all of whom were asymptomatic. There were roughly 400 workers on the project.
MDH did not provide data on COVID-19 spread in the construction industry in Minnesota, but the health agency’s spokesman Doug Schultz said in an email that building sites have not been “sources of significant workplace COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the Minnesota and North Dakota Chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said projects — such as windfarms — with a mix of local and out-of-state workers have been under construction during the pandemic and the state has not halted work out of COVID-19 concerns.
Building the project during winter carries environmental benefits by mitigating damage to wetlands and missing that window could substantially delay completion of the project, Enbridge told the PUC in a written rebuttal to a recent stay request. The United Association union, which represents pipefitters, also told the PUC that construction gives workers income and health benefits during a pandemic-induced recession.
While there are some medical professionals calling for a stop to construction, there has not been widespread outcry among the state’s top health care leaders.
Several major health care organizations declined to comment on the safety of Line 3 construction, saying they had no position on the project. That includes the Minnesota Hospital Association, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Nurses Association.
In Aitkin County, local health officials did say pipeline workers could pose a problem, but they did not ask Walz to pause the project.
Erin Melz, the county’s public health supervisor, and Dr. David Taylor, the chief medical officer at the Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, said in a joint statement that “anytime a community experiences an increase in population, permanent or temporary, there is an elevated risk for medical and public health issues/concerns.”
Riverwood is the primary hospital in the area, and the statement says Riverwood has faced higher demand for hospital beds lately. “It remains a fluid situation, one that is being monitored closely,” said Melz and Taylor. “Although impartial to the pipeline project itself, Aitkin County Public Health and Riverwood Healthcare Center have a heightened awareness of the added concerns and strain it could put on our medical and public health resources.”