2 Keystone XL pipeline workers get virus, but work continues

BILLINGS, Mont, (AP) — Two people working on the Keystone XL oil pipeline have tested positive for the coronavirus in northern Montana, but the company said Thursday that construction work on the disputed project will continue after a temporary shut down of a pipe storage yard.

Calgary-based TC Energy says the first pipe yard worker in Phillips County tested positive at a local clinic on July 28, Yellowstone Public Radio reported. Testing on six close contacts of the infected person found a second worker with the virus.

Native American tribes and others along the pipeline's 1,200-mile (1,930-mile) route have raised concerns that workers could bring the virus into rural communities unable to handle a large outbreak.

The infected workers were in quarantine and not expected to return to the storage yard, where construction was expected to wrap up in coming days, company spokesman Terry Cunha said.

Work was not interrupted ongoing elsewhere along the route, including site work on planned camps for workers in Baker, Montana and Philip, South Dakota and at eight pump stations in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

“We are continuing to follow the safety protocols and there are no other cases to report,” Cunha said.

The pump station construction does not include laying of pipeline. That's stalled because of a court ruling that invalidated a permit needed for the hundreds of rivers, wetlands and other water bodies that Keystone XL would cross between Hardisty, Alberta, Canada and Steel City, Nebraska.

TC Energy this spring negotiated a plan with Montana health officials to minimize virus risks, including checking people entering work sites for fever. Pipeline opponents have said those measures are insufficient.

The project was proposed more than a decade ago but was stalled for years until President Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration's rejection of the project. It's price tag has grown to more than $9 billion, according to recent regulatory filings by the company.

The company initially planned to build 11 camps housing up to 1,000 workers each along the pipeline’s route — six in Montana, four in South Dakota and one in Nebraska.

Construction of most camps for now has been deferred because of the court ruling on river crossings, Cunha said, and it’s uncertain if all the camps will be built after the arrival of the pandemic.