A total of 788 workers building Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline through the US state of Minnesota have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data obtained by Al Jazeera from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
The project, the largest in Enbridge history, would replace a 1,700-kilometre (1,000-mile) oil pipeline that runs from Edmonton, Alberta in Canada to Superior, Wisconsin in the US. Construction is on track to continue until the end of the year, amid protests and Indigenous resistance to the project.
In late November, amid the worst wave of the pandemic in the state, thousands of out-of-state workers arrived to build the pipeline through rural communities in northern Minnesota.
The data shows that shortly after construction began on December 1, 2020, a wave of pipeline workers contracted the virus. The winter surge in cases has subsided, but Line 3 workers are still contracting COVID, as the highly contagious Delta variant is now taking hold in the US.
Three workers were hospitalized, and none have died, according to MDH.
Healthcare workers tell Al Jazeera they believe the bulk of cases could have been prevented.
In November, more than 200 healthcare workers and Indigenous tribal leaders petitioned Governor Tim Walz to issue an emergency stay on construction until after vaccines were widely available. But Walz allowed the project to go ahead.
Brenna Doheny, executive director of Health Professionals for a Health Climate, spearheaded the petition to prevent a surge of COVID cases in rural areas, where hospital capacity is severely limited. She called the governor’s decision “disappointing and frustrating” because the state had previously listened to healthcare workers.
“For the most part they did a fantastic job, but that decision, for that reason, was baffling.”
Laalitha Surapaneni, a physician who cared for COVID patients, signed the petition asking Walz to delay construction. When Al Jazeera shared the data with her, Surapaneni said, “This is a lot of cases … It seems like it could have been avoided.”
Al Jazeera asked Walz why he allowed Line 3 construction to proceed. A spokesperson from the governor’s office did not give an explanation for why Line 3 construction was deemed an essential service.
Claire Lancaster, Walz’s press secretary, wrote in an email that the governor had “listened to the data and worked with public health officials throughout the pandemic in order to keep Minnesotans safe and healthy”.
Did Line 3 construction contribute to community spread?
In November, the state and most of the country was entering its worst wave of the pandemic, and ICU beds were running out. When Walz allowed construction to proceed, thousands of out-of-state workers travelled to rural communities in northern Minnesota.
According to a labour statistics report, from October to December, the project employed about 1,500 local workers and 3,000 out-of-state workers.
Shortly after construction began, a wave of workers tested positive for COVID. According to MDH, of the total employees who tested positive, about 40 percent were from out-of-state and 60 percent were from Minnesota.
Asked if Line 3 construction contributed to community spread, MDH told Al Jazeera, “the community isn’t binary: Line 3 Project workers and everyone else. Many Line 3 workers are local people.”
Workers are not separate from the community — they regularly come into contact with people at work and after work, at home or visiting bars, restaurants, grocery stores or gas stations, where there is potential for COVID spread.
The largest number of Line 3 worker cases occurred in Thief River Falls in Pennington County, alongside a community increase in cases. MDH said its investigation found that “officials were seeing case clusters in a variety of settings and had concerns about compliance with basic COVID-19 mitigation recommendations among community members, which they attributed to COVID fatigue.” But MDH was unable to pinpoint one cause for the overall case increase in Pennington County.
MDH said employee contact tracing is the responsibility of Enbridge and subcontractors. Enbridge reported to MDH that the most common source of worker infection were infectious roommates. In many cases, the infectious roommates tested positive shortly after joining the Line 3 project worksite, MDH said. Workers have also contracted COVID from after-hours social contacts (both Line 3 employees and community members), and at work, MDH said. Overall, the source of most Line 3 worker infections was either a known social contact or unknown.
“With an infectious disease that spreads through close contact, ongoing community spread, and a large workforce coming and going that is made up of people from within Minnesota and from other states, there is no way to tease out the source of most infections,” MDH told Al Jazeera.
To find out if Line 3 construction contributed to community spread, Al Jazeera asked for relevant data through a public records request, and repeatedly asked MDH for this data, but the department did not provide it. Al Jazeera shared all available MDH data with healthcare experts, but they said it was incomplete and they could not draw conclusions about whether pipeline construction caused community spread.
Worksite COVID rules
Jason Goward, an Ojibwe man from Fond Du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, worked for two Line 3 subcontractors. In 2020, he helped with pre-construction preparations like tree-clearing, before quitting to join the movement against Line 3.
Goward said his bosses encouraged employees to wear masks and take precautions, but when managers were not present, he saw workers remove their masks. He heard some of them say, “I’m not getting the vaccine,” and, referring to masks, “Are they gonna take away our freedom now, too?” Managers asked them to work in separate trucks, but workers did not always follow the rules, he said.
Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner told Al Jazeera the company had implemented “strict and industry-leading COVID-19 safety protocols”. Workers are tested on the first and seventh day of employment, and then every two weeks after that, as well as daily health and temperature screenings.
At the worksite, Kellner said employees are required to wear masks, keep physical distance, wash their hands regularly, and sanitize work areas. The company is encouraging its workers to get vaccinated and is bringing mobile vaccine clinics to construction sites.
Kellner said any worker infected with COVID — or not fully vaccinated and in contact with an infected person — is not allowed on worksites and must quarantine.
‘They put us all at risk’
The pipeline route passes by Native communities in northern Minnesota, including White Earth and Red Lake Nations, near Thief River Falls. In December, the tribes filed a motion with the Public Utilities Commission asking for a stay of construction, but the commission denied the motion. On December 1, 2020, Michael Fairbanks, chairman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, sent a letter to Walz asking for a delay of construction, calling the move “lifesaving”.
“COVID cases in Native Nations can happen at 3.5 times or more — the rates in the general population and at a decade younger in age,” he wrote.
Native American deaths from the disease have been near twice as high as for white people, according to CDC data.
Dawn Goodwin, member of White Earth, said her community lost elders from COVID-19. Elders are especially important because they retain traditional knowledge that survived US and Canada forced assimilation boarding schools.
Although it is not clear if Line 3 contributed to COVID cases in her community, Goodwin said, “They put us all at risk.”
“It makes me angry, because we tried to tell them. I try not to live in anger, it’s not a good emotion to hang onto, but when you see your community being invaded by workers from all over during a pandemic, it’s hard not to be angry.”