Voisey's Bay, Muskrat Falls workers being sent home in bid to prevent COVID-19 spread

The Brazilian mining giant is placing its Labrador nickel mine on "care and maintenance" protocols for the next four weeks, letting workers leave site and head home.

Vale says it doesn't want to spread virus to already vulnerable Indigenous communities

The Voisey's Bay mine in located in northern Labrador, near the Inuit community of Nain. As of Monday, there were some 800 workers on site. (Vale)

Hundreds of workers are being ordered out of two major worksites in Labrador in order to help prevent the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus to already vulnerable Indigenous communities.

Vale announced Monday night it's halting mining and construction activities at its Voisey's Bay site, and on Tuesday afternoon, Nalcor Energy announced what it called a control demobilization of the workforce at the Muskrat Falls construction site.

Empty planes were scheduled to fly into Voisey's Bay, which is accessible only by air and employs about 400 people from Inuit and Innu communities in Labrador, on Tuesday and begin the removal of hundreds of workers.

There are currently 800 workers at Voisey's Bay, and Vale said it will reduce that number to roughly 100 to maintain the site.

The Muskrat Falls powerhouse is seen in this February photo. Nalcor Energy announced Tuesday it's removing workers from the site to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 to Labrador. (Submitted by Nalcor Energy)

There are roughly 500 workers at Muskrat Falls, with 350 of those living in a work camp. Nalcor did not say how many workers will remain on site.

There are no confirmed cases of the virus at either site, the companies stated.

"We are currently working with our contractors and union partners as we start a controlled demobilization of the workforce," the Nalcor statement reads.

Construction work at Muskrat Falls "will be paused while we maintain essential systems and operations at the site."

Both sites will be idled for at least the next month.

The timing is notable in both cases.

In Voisey's Bay, a major underground expansion project is underway, while at Muskrat Falls, installation of the four turbines needed to operate the power generating station is at a critical phase, with full commercial power scheduled for later this year.

Vale spokesman Matthew Pike said the company does not want to play a part in introducing the novel coronavirus to Labrador, where Innu and Inuit communities already face serious health and social challenges.

"We felt this was drastic action we needed to take with people at the forefront," said Pike.

The Nunatsiavut Government issued a statement Tuesday, commending Vale for its decision "in light of concerns being expressed by beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement with the large numbers of workers from other parts of Canada flying to and from the mine site."

The statement described the precautions by Vale as unprecedented, but necessary.

There is a constant flow of workers in and out of both sites from all over Canada, and in some cases internationally. So there's a heightened fear about introducing the virus to Indigenous communities, where concerns about access to healthcare and overcrowding in homes are well documented.

"What we're saying to those (Indigenous) employees and residents of those communities is to stay home," said Pike, adding it will take roughly 10 days to remove hundreds of employees from Voisey's Bay.

We don't want to send people home by protecting their health and then take their income away from them.- Matthew Pike

Pike, meanwhile, said Vale employees and contractors will be paid during the work stoppage.

"We talk about the social determinants of health, and having a good income improves the quality of life, so we don't want to send people home by protecting their health and then take their income away from them," he said.

Vale also operates a processing plant in southern Newfoundland, at Long Harbour. For now, the plant will remain in operation, working through a stockpile of nickel and cobalt concentrates, the company said.

Husky Energy says extra precautions are in place, but construction of the West White Rose concrete gravity structure will continue at the Port of Argentia, Placentia Bay. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Husky Energy said construction of the West White Rose concrete gravity structure at Argentia will continue, though plans are in place to ensure the health and safety of workers, such as health screening and increased cleaning.

There are some 650 people working at Argentia on day and night shifts, and another 230 in Marystown, where workers are constructing a module for the platform.

Husky has prohibited all non-essential travel and is restricting non-critical visits to its sites, and any worker, whether an employee or contractor, must work remotely if returning from travel outside the country.

"We have also cancelled any meetings or gatherings of more than 50 people, and have voluntary work from home provisions for employees whose job allows them to do that," the Husky statement reads.

Husky operates the SeaRose oil production vessel offshore Newfoundland and Labrador. There are 70-plus workers on the vessel, and they are being pre-screened before travelling offshore.

"We will be limiting the number of people offshore at this time, and will make further workforce adjustments as required. Our priority is the health and safety of our workforce, their families and our communities," said Husky.

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