BILLINGS — Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are raising fears that the coronavirus could race through temporary camps and workers could spread it to nearby rural communities that would not be able to handle an outbreak.
Despite a clampdown on people’s movements in much of the country, groups of workers travel every day from camps in New Mexico to build President Donald Trump’s border wall.
Along the northern border, a Canadian company says it will start work this month on the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which could bring thousands of workers to rural communities in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Residents, tribal leaders and state officials have warned that the influx of outsiders could make problems worse in rural areas with little or no medical infrastructure capable of dealing with a surge of infections. Both the border wall and pipeline are exempt from stay-at-home restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the virus.
Faith Spotted Eagle, an environmental activist and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said she’s reminded of her grandmother’s stories about the tribe’s struggles to survive small pox and the Spanish flu.
“It’s the 1800s again, the cavalry is coming in and they’re going to set up their fort, whether it’s justified or not,” she said.
Cities have borne the brunt of the virus so far in the U.S., but rural areas are expected to be hit as well.
That’s a fear in tiny Columbus, New Mexico, where residents worry about the influx of border wall workers who often gather outside the town’s few restaurants while the rest of the community has been ordered to stay at home and keep their distance from others.
“My bottom line is nothing is worth thousands or hundreds or tens of people getting COVID,” said resident July McClure, who manages a local RV park and volunteers with the fire department.
In the town of less than 1,500 people, about 30 construction workers are setting up camp in tightly packed trailers, residents say. Others are staying at two small hotels while they put up bollard-style fencing along the scrub desert — a small piece of about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of barriers being built along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Adriana Zizumbo, 32, who operates a cafe, said she’s shocked to see dozens of people congregating when Columbus is on lockdown.
“It is kind of crazy because I thought they limited (gatherings) to five people or 10 people, and they’re setting up some man camps out in Columbus, and there’s about to be a lot of men in one (place),” Zizumbo said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the contractors working on the southern border, said it follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but declined to share specifics on how it’s protecting public health during construction.
Just south of the Canadian border, workers have begun arriving in the small Montana town of Glasgow to work on the 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) Keystone pipeline this month, according to the company and the governor’s office. The new pipeline would tie into existing infrastructure at the Nebraska-Kansas line, where it would carry crude oil south to the Gulf of Mexico for possible export.
First proposed in 2008, the pipeline was stalled for years by legal challenges and rejected twice under President Barack Obama. Trump revived it by personally approving the line’s border crossing permit, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that the provincial government was investing more than $1 billion to get work going quickly.
Calgary-based TC Energy, the project’s sponsor, said it’s collaborating with health officials in northern Montana to minimize risks, including checking everyone entering work sites for fever and ensuring workers follow social distancing guidelines. The company says more than 10,000 construction jobs would be created by the $8 billion project, with about 100 workers initially at the border crossing.
“We’re very cognizant of what’s going on,” spokesman Terry Cunha said. “We’re talking about thousands of jobs. … We want to make sure what they do will ensure the safety of everybody.”
The company had planned to build 11 camps for workers along the pipeline’s route — six in Montana, four in South Dakota and one in Nebraska, according a U.S. State Department review of the project. Those plans were being reviewed in light of the pandemic, but they will still be required eventually, Cunha said Wednesday.
The camps would be built on open land and house up to 1,000 people, according to the State Department review.
Several tribes whose land is skirted by the proposed pipeline route in South Dakota and Montana have enacted stricter measures than the state to protect tribal members from the coronavirus. Many tribal members worry what a widespread outbreak would do to a population already at risk for diabetes and high blood pressure.
Spotted Eagle said she did not believe any promised safety measures, such as quarantining workers or regular screenings, would be enough to keep communities safe. Many health clinics have just a few beds and even fewer ventilators.
Floyd Azure, chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, said an influx of pipeline workers to northeastern Montana could accelerate the spread of the virus that has so far spared the reservation. He worries about a repeat of the problems that accompanied an oil boom in the region last decade — from drugs to sex trafficking — now exacerbated by the virus.
The pipeline would run just outside the reservation’s boundaries. Azure said he had no authority to stop the work and has been unable to convince state officials or federal lawmakers to intervene.
“We’re worried sick about it. We have enough problems on this reservation without someone creating more for us,” he said. “I don’t know and I don’t care where they’re from. I don’t think they should come here from somewhere else.”
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