When Enbridge Energy began construction on its Line 3 crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota last month, opponents of the project said the influx of workers could spike COVID-19 rates in rural areas and strain the health care system.
Some asked Gov. Tim Walz to pause construction as the pandemic raged and while legal challenges to Line 3 were still unresolved.
Walz and state regulators declined to halt the $2.6 billion project, and more than a month later, Enbridge says its COVID-19 protocols are working as planned. So far, there have been a modest number of cases among the thousands of workers on the pipeline, though the full scope of Enbridge’s impact on disease spread isn’t clear.
After years of environmental review and permitting, Enbridge started to build Line 3 on Dec. 1. The 36-inch pipeline is intended to replace a smaller 34-inch pipeline that was built in the 1960s and is a spill risk due to corrosion. The new pipeline will travel 337 miles across northern Minnesota along a partially new route before ending at a terminal in Superior, Wisc. It starts in Edmonton, Alberta.
The project has been controversial among some tribes and environmental groups, who say the state should not allow new fossil fuel infrastructure while climate change worsens. Line 3 opponents also contend a new pipeline still presents a spill risk. Enbridge has touted the high-wage union jobs the project will bring and says a new pipeline is far safer than the alternatives: using the old pipeline or transporting oil by rail or truck.
As construction began, Line 3 opponents offered a new argument: that it is unsafe to build during a pandemic. The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians called on Walz to stop the project, as did the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks said in a letter at the time that availability of nearby hospital beds was limited.
At its peak, Enbridge expects to have about 4,000 workers. About half of those workers will be local. The company says its health and safety protocols can reduce the risk of COVID-19, and workers are spread across the route.
A progress report Enbridge filed with state regulators Friday says clearing work to prep for construction is about half done along the Line 3 corridor, while about 15 percent of construction on the pipeline is finished. Enbridge is roughly 17 percent done building eight pump stations, the report says.
What we know about COVID-19 spread
Pipeline workers are tested for COVID-19 when they first show up at their job site, and are tested again roughly a week later. After that, workers are tested every two weeks, or if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
So far, the rate of positive tests is less than 3.5 percent, said Juli Kellner, a spokeswoman for Enbridge, on Friday. The vast majority of known cases have been asymptomatic. The company is aware of 20 symptomatic cases, Kellner said, and fourteen of those people have recovered and returned to work. Six of those people are recovering and are expected to be back on the job soon, Kellner said. She did not give the number of asymptomatic cases. “As a reminder many of our individual workers have now been tested three and four times,” Kellner said in an emailed statement.
Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, said Thursday that one Enbridge worker was hospitalized in another state after testing positive for COVID-19 in Minnesota. There haven’t been COVID-related deaths as of Thursday.
Schultz said they have not been able to analyze state data to find Enbridge-related clusters of COVID-19 but hope to do so later this week. He said there have been 92 clusters of cases tied to all construction workers since the pandemic began, which represents 6.2 percent of all workplace clusters. (MDH currently considers a cluster to be five or more people at a workplace who get sick within 14 days of each other. Before Nov. 12, the agency considered a cluster to be three or more cases.)
Enbridge protocols aim to limit interaction between pipeline workers and local communities. Though it’s not known if — and how much — sick Enbridge workers have spread COVID-19 to others in their areas, the pandemic has eased some in Minnesota during late December and January. That’s true along the pipeline route as well.
In mid-November, ten of 13 counties that Line 3 will cross were above the statewide average for cases per 10,000 residents. At the time, Polk County had the highest weekly case rate of those counties at 125.7. In the week of Dec. 27, the most recent data available, only two pipeline counties were above the statewide average. St. Louis County had the highest weekly case rate of those pipeline counties at 24.8.
Hospitalizations are down across the state, though there are signs the pandemic is once again getting worse — such as a steadily increasing seven-day positive case average.
Some pipeline opponents and health professionals used Aitkin County as an example of a place along the Line 3 route where limited health care capacity could be strained by a spike in cases from construction workers.
Erin Melz, public health supervisor for Aitkin County, said Monday that the county has seen a “dramatic decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations” lately, though she said the disease “remains in our communities.”
Speaking for the county and for the Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, Melz said: “Regarding the Enbridge Line 3 project, specifically, neither organization has anything to report on the health impacts to the community. Testing, isolation, quarantine, masking and social distancing paired with vaccination as it becomes more available will be our best defenses and means to more quickly return to a sense of normalcy.”
Schultz, the MDH spokesman, said MDH meets with Enbridge weekly as construction continues to ensure they’re meeting guidelines and “to help them solve problems in order to protect their workers and nearby communities from spread of COVID-19.”