British Columbia

Coastal GasLink ramps up pipeline work, 4 months after Wet'suwet'en land conflict sparked rail blockades

A pipeline project at the centre of a Wet'suwet'en land dispute that sparked rail blockades is ramping up work with 2,500 people set to lay pipe this summer.

2,500 workers to lay pipe across northern B.C. this summer in $6.6B project

The first weld on the CGL pipeline was completed in Kitimat this month. Work on the rest of the line is scheduled to ramp up this summer. (Coastal GasLink/contributed )

Coastal GasLink is ramping up construction across northern B.C, just months after a high profile conflict over Wet'suwet'en land rights sparked RCMP raids on the pipeline route and rail blockades across the country.

Now, the company says about 2,500 people will be putting pipe in the ground by September along the 670-kilometre route from the gas fields of northeastern B.C. to the Pacific.  

The $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline will carry natural gas to a $40-billion LNG terminal under construction in Kitimat, representing one of the largest private sector investments in Canadian history. 

Construction was temporarily stalled earlier this year over a contested section of the pipeline route on traditional territory claimed by several Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. 

Now, just four months later, about half of the pipe needed for the pipeline is ready to be installed. It's been transported to storage depots across the north, from manufacturers in Regina, Japan, and India, according to Coastal GasLink.

Crews work to finish Vanderhoof Lodge, a work camp where about 950 pipeline workers will be living by the end of summer. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

The 48-inch pipes "are about the height of a seven-year-old child," said Kiel Giddens, the public affairs manager with the Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project in British Columbia. He says each section of pipe is as long as a logging truck, and the heaviest weigh the equivalent of 10 passenger vehicles. 

In Prince George alone, 110 kilometres of distinctive green pipe is already stacked and stored in an industrial area, just two kilometres from a Tim Hortons coffee shop. 

An aerial view of stockpiled pipe for Coastal GasLink near Houston, B.C. (Coastal GasLink/contributed )

By the end of August, that pipe will be in the ground, according to Coastal GasLink's schedule.

For northerners like Murphy Thomas, the arrival of the pipe means work in a region hard hit by COVID layoffs and mill closures.

"I'm extremely happy, and you know, the pay's great," said Murphy, 46, a grandfather originally from the Nak'azdli First Nation, who was hired as a general labourer.

Thomas lists off the mills he's worked at that have all shut down.

"The forestry industry has gone straight downhill," he told CBC News. 

Thomas said he's aware of the Wet'suwet'en land claims conflicts that temporarily stalled Coastal GasLink's project, but said he's grateful for the job. 

"I have respect for my culture," he said, "but on the other hand, I've got to feed my family, too, right?"

'I've got to feed my family,' said Murphy Thomas who is now a general labourer on the pipeline project, after going through numerous mill closures. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

About 100 kilometres west of the pipe storage area in Prince George, Coastal GasLink contractors are hard at work finishing a work camp for 950 people. 

The Vanderhoof Lodge will be so big, it will boost the population of the local community by 25 per cent, according to CGL.

"It's not a small thing," said Bob Cooper, the construction co-ordinator for SA Energy Group, one of the pipeline's main contractors.  "We've built a camp on agricultural land, next to an airport, near a community in the middle of a pandemic. So it's been a big challenge."

The lodge is being built as a village of modular units, set on a wooden platform atop farmland.  Staff has spotted bears outside the perimeter fence.

By mid-August, the camp will be at capacity, housing almost 1,000 workers in single rooms that look like the inside of cabins on a cruise ship. 

By the end of summer, 950 pipeline workers will be living in this camp and travelling to their worksite to lay pipe. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Before then, the contractors' jobs include doubling the accommodation, building a gym, powering up generators and ensuring there's enough bandwidth for hundreds of pipeline workers to all stream Netflix at once.

But there is a much more serious preparation underway related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To maintain physical distancing, trucks that carry crews from camp to the worksite will only be able to transport seven people at a time, instead of 44. 

The communal dining room is also being reconfigured for single seating. 

On Monday, chef manager Taya Alec stepped out of the kitchen wearing his COVID mask, like everyone else on site. He'd been making turkey soup and carrot cake for the small crew finishing the camp accommodation.

"Working during COVID, it's kind of sketchy but everybody takes a lot of safety precautions. They take it very seriously, so it's fine," said Alec.

Coastal GasLink says it's working closely with health authorities to keep its worksites safe.

Nurse Clint Papineau conducts a mandatory temperature check at a Coastal GasLink worksite near Vanderhoof. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

This week, at the gate to the lodge, a masked guard ensured every visitor completed a health screening. 

Next, Clint Papineau, a friendly, masked nurse with tattoos that reach past his knuckles wielded a touchless infrared thermometer to check visitors' temperatures, before handing out masks and sanitizer.

"There's definitely no blueprint to building a project like this in such unprecedented times," said CGL's Giddens. " But the province has identified major projects and construction projects as critical activities at this time."

Chef manager Taya Alec wears a COVID mask and physically distances. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

And so the pipeline work proceeds. 

Indeed, the Vanderhoof Lodge is just one of 14 workforce accommodation facilities that will house crews as pipeline work ramps up across northern B.C. this summer. 

"We do have a lot of support from within Indigenous communities across our entire project," said Giddens on Monday, noting the company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the route. The Vanderhoof work camp is being built in partnership with the local Nakazdli Whut'en and Saik'uz First Nations. 

"We respect the right for individuals to protest and ... have their views heard," said Giddens. "We don't want our workers' safety or any protesters out there to be jeopardized. So, it is really important that we work together to find ways that we can peacefully continue safely."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the national network Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry. She also covered the 2010 Paralympics for national radio news.

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