Health Commissioner Malcolm: State to ‘closely monitor’ Line 3 path for COVID-19 outbreaks, and ‘adjust, as appropriate’

Give credit to Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm for responding to a question regarding the state’s decision to approve construction of Line 3 at the same time the state expects a coronavirus surge.

Healing Minnesota Stories has sent inquiries to a number of health and public health officials asking about the wisdom of allowing Line 3 work to proceed considering the health risks. Malcolm is the first to respond. We will post other responses if and when we get them.

On its face, the decision to allow Line 3 construction now seems illogical. The state just put the brakes on various forms of social engagement to slow the pandemic, yet it seems to have a different standard for Line 3.

The argument seems to be that since the state is allowing other construction projects to proceed during the pandemic that it needs to allow Enbridge Line 3 to proceed, too. That fails to consider some of Line 3’s unique features. The project’s scale is well beyond anything else in the state. It will attract several thousands workers to northern Minnesota. (A video posted on Facebook of a Bemidji Super 8 parking lot reports cars from Texas, Louisiana, California, and Oklahoma.)

Further, the Minnesota Department of Commerce is currently in the Minnesota Court of Appeals arguing to revoke Line 3’s key permits. According to Commerce, Enbridge failed to prove Line 3 is needed. So what’s the rush to build an unnecessary pipeline?

Here is Commissioner Malcolm’s response to Healing Minnesota Stories question, in full.

Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm

Thank you for sharing your concerns about the Enbridge Line 3 project and the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the beginning, the Governor and MDH have worked to fight the pandemic by listening to what the science and the data tell us about the risk of COVID-19 spreading between people. Nowhere is that approach more important than in making decisions about what critical work can continue during this time, with appropriate safety precautions in place.

That is why the Governor has required that businesses – including those in the construction industry – develop and implement COVID-19 Preparedness Plans that detail how they’ll make sure their employees and the communities they’re operating in stay safe. These businesses must comply with other guidelines issued by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Department of Labor and Industry (DLI).

Top: Coronavirus cases by county. Source: MDH
Bottom: Line 3 route (green)

Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, construction work has continued across the state under these strict protocols and we have, thankfully, not seen these sites become sources of spread to the community and only rarely identified workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. As construction occurs on the Line 3 replacement project, Enbridge and all of its contractors and subcontractors will be required to follow these same requirements and industry guidelines. Additionally, individuals who work on the project, whether from Minnesota or not, will be required to follow all state COVID-19 requirements when engaging in recreational and social activities outside of work hours—just as is expected from other residents and visitors to the state.

We have been in close communication with Enbridge in recent weeks to ensure they understand the COVID-19 safety requirements necessary to comply with the state’s industry guidance. Enbridge, through its COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, will need to meet all requirements imposed by state or local officials to protect the health of their workers and the surrounding communities.

MDH and the Governor continue to closely monitor the course of the virus and healthcare capacity—both across the state and along the project route–and adjust, as appropriate, Executive Orders and industry guidance.

Sincerely,
Jan K. Malcolm

So the state has required Enbridge, just like every other construction company, to “develop and implement COVID-19 Preparedness Plans” that details how they’ll “make sure their employees and the communities they’re operating in stay safe.”

Healing Minnesota Stories addressed Enbridge’s COVID-19 plan in an earlier blog: PUC ignores Line 3’s COVID concerns, buys into Enbridge’s flawed pandemic plan.

Minnesota COVID-19 deaths. Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Here are some excerpt’s from Enbridge’s plan.

“The Project will strive to limit the transmission of COVID-19 to members of the community by strongly encouraging personnel only go into public spaces for essential errands and to follow COVID-19 protocols at all times.” (Page 2)

Comment: The phrase “strive to limit the transmission of COVID-19” is an admission that it will spread.

“The Project will monitor and strictly enforce job site compliance with onsite health professionals and physical distancing monitors.” (Pages 2-3)

Sounds good, but vague. But how many “physical distancing monitors” will there be? How many health professionals? Does someone who is a physical distancing monitor have other jobs, too?

The plan says all the right things about masks, social distancing and hand washing. Yet it falls down on its “Monitoring and Compliance” measures. This is the critical enforcement and accountability piece.

The Monitoring and Compliance measures are reprinted, below, in full.

6.1 OBJECTIVE

“The objective of a monitoring program is to hold all Project workers accountable, and to ensure contractors and personnel are adhering to the procedures and protocols in this Plan.

“Further, it is to set realistic compliance goals to objectively assess our success from a COVID safety perspective.”

Enbridge’s COVID-19 Plan

Comment: Enbridge doesn’t say what the compliance goals are, just that it will set them. We’ve been dealing with COVID for nine months. Why doesn’t Enbridge already have these goals in place?

6.2 METRICS TO MONITOR COMPLIANCE

“The Project commits to establishing compliance metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of the Plan. The metrics will cover key performance indicators on rate of infections, testing and contact tracing.”

Enbridge’s COVID-19 Plan

Comment: Again, Enbridge doesn’t have compliance metrics. It’s promising to establish compliance metrics. If Enbridge was serious about this work, such metrics would have been in place and available for public scrutiny months ago.

By not stating compliance goals and metrics, Enbridge avoids accountability and the possibility that work could be stopped for failure to meet them.

6.3 PENALTIES

Non-compliance with COVID-19 protocols will be addressed with the following:

•Verbal reminder
•Written warning
•Additional training on COVID Protocols
•Removal from project for 10 days
•Permanent removal from Enbridge Project

Enbridge’s COVID-19 Plan

Comment: Those three sections are the sum total of Enbridge’s “Monitoring and Compliance” plan for COVID-19. Note: A worker has to violate the protocols four times before they face any real lost-work consequences.

For comparison, if a small nonprofit such as a food shelf or a transitional housing program gets a county contract, I’m betting it has a much more stringent reporting requirements.

If a contractor simply promised the county to set realistic compliance goals and metrics without providing details, it’s a good bet they wouldn’t get the contract.

Yet the state gives Enbridge the okie-dokie for a COVID plan lacking accountability.

By allowing Line 3 construction to start, the state is taking a big risk with the lives of people who live in northern Minnesota. Let’s hope they’re right.

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