Saskatoon

Northern Sask. work camps close or slim down because of COVID-19

"We work with locals and purchase locally too. The thought of spreading the virus was not a palatable one," says one exploration company.

'The thought of spreading the virus was not a palatable one,' says one exploration company

NextGen Energy employees from La Loche who were working at the company's Arrow/Rook 1 uranium project north of the village have been sent home but are still being paid full wages. (NextGen Energy Ltd.)

Resource extraction work sites in northern Saskatchewan are either shutting down or thinning their ranks as the region deals with the worst of Saskatchewan's COVID-19 outbreaks. 

"We do not have our camp open at the current time," said Patrick Soares, the president and CEO of Foran Mining Corporation. 

The Vancouver-based company is developing the McIlvenna Bay zinc-copper-gold-silver deposit near Hanson Lake in northeast Saskatchewan.

"We are concerned about the COVID-19 crisis and thought that it was better to err on the side of caution rather than risk having the virus spread through the north by visitors from Vancouver and Toronto," Soares said. 

"We work with locals and purchase locally too. The thought of spreading the virus was not a palatable one."

Foran Mining Corporation's McIlvenna Bay zinc-copper-gold-silver deposit is located near Hanson Lake in northeast Saskatchewan. The site has shut down because of COVID-19. (Foran Mining Corporation)

Northern employees sent home on full wages

NextGen Energy Ltd., which owns the Arrow/Rook 1 uranium deposit about 155 kilometres north of La Loche — the village at the epicentre of the northern Saskatchewan outbreak — says it worked with the village to hire two dedicated community pandemic co-ordinators who live in the area.

The co-ordinators are helping source protective equipment and co-ordinate traffic in and out of La Loche which, like every other northern community, is under orders to avoid non-essential travel.

"[At] the outset of COVID-19 in March, the company immediately ceased any inter-provincial travel of any employee or consultant," said Leigh Curyer, president and CEO of NextGen. 

The company has reduced travel from Saskatoon to La Loche to "an absolute needs basis," Curyer said.

Any employees going to La Loche are instructed not to exit their vehicles when travelling through the village. 

Employees from La Loche have been sent home and advised to stay there, but are still being paid full wages, Curyer said.

The company is also providing food vouchers for students since its regular program providing fresh meals at schools can't operate, he added. 

Cameco suspends northern flight pickups 

Uranium producer Cameco has several operations in Saskatchewan's north, all of which currently have reduced staffing.  Nevertheless, the company is taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

In late March, Cameco said it would set its Cigar Lake mine to only do care and maintenance so that there were fewer people on site and physical distancing would be much easier.

The company is now offering more details about what it's doing at Cigar Lake and its sister McArthur River, Key Lake and Rabbit Lake sites, which were already in care and maintenance mode. 

There are still about 370 people working between the four sites. Workers work two-week shift rotations and live in dormitory-style camps.

A small portion of them are from Saskatchewan's North — "certainly lower than it would normally be," said Jeff Hryhoriw, Cameco's director of government relations and communications. 

"We have suspended our regular west-side flights up to site, which use Patuanak and Buffalo Narrows as the pick-up points, and also have no pick-ups from the Athabasca Basin communities in the far north," he said. 

Many workers remain at northern operations for uranium producer Cameco, but the company has instituted pre-flight temperature checks and staggered meal times at camps to reduce the risk of infection among workers. (Cameco)

No Cameco workers have tested positive for COVID-19, Hryhoriw said. 

He said the company screens its workers before they are allowed to board flights and go on site. That includes checking employees' temperatures, he said.

Non-essential contractors, visitors and deliveries are being restricted at all sites, Hryhoriw added.

"We've implemented increased sanitization, heightened controls on food service, and staggered meal times," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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