A sign indicates pipeline construction as crews establish a worker encampment northeast of Hinsdale in Valley County, Montana. Photographed April 2, 2020
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is allowing Canadian pipeline company TC Energy to begin construction this month of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in Montana, categorizing the pipeline as an “essential” project exempt from his statewide stay-at-home directive, despite the acknowledged threat that hundreds of out-of-state pipeline workers pose to state efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
At press time, there is one recorded case of COVID-19 in remote eastern Montana’s Roosevelt County. The counties Keystone XL is slated to traverse have yet to report any cases. Current U.S. maps of COVID-19 cases show that these counties are currently the largest uninfected area in the Lower 48 states.
Officials in Valley County, where Keystone XL would cross under the Missouri River shortly after entering Montana from Canada, are working hard to keep it that way.
On March 28, Valley County officials ordered that all new arrivals to the county are subject to a 14-day quarantine, retroactively including pipeline workers who arrived as early as March 26. Bullock ordered a similar state-wide quarantine policy for new arrivals to Montana on Wednesday, April 1.
Valley County Health Officer Dr. Anne Millard said during an April 1 livestreamed Q&A that the 14-day quarantine applies to pipeline workers only when they are on personal time.
“I can’t stop the TC Energy folks from going to work, but when they are not working they really should be in their rooms and staying there,” Millard said.
Bullock’s March 26 directive defining those allowed to work during the pandemic contains broad exemptions for health care, human services, and “essential infrastructure” workers. The directive says essential infrastructure “shall be construed broadly to avoid any impacts” on those industries. It specifically allows for construction, public works construction, maintenance operations, utilities, power generation, production of raw materials, oil and biofuel refining, transportation, petroleum and fuel, and mining.
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A footnote to the directive references a March 19 U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo providing federal guidelines for work considered essential. That memo includes “workers for crude oil, petroleum and petroleum product storage and transportation, including pipelines,” and those “supporting new and existing construction projects, including, but not limited to, pipeline construction.”
The governor said in a Friday, April 3, press conference that he has “had conversations with everyone from the premier of Alberta to conversations with individuals at TC Energy,” and that he shares local concerns about an influx of out-of-state pipeline workers.
Bullock spokesperson Marissa Perry told the Associated Press on March 30 that “TC Energy holds a tremendous responsibility to appropriately manage or eliminate this risk and we will continue to monitor the plans for that response.”
Asked why Bullock’s directive allows for construction of Keystone XL if it poses specific concerns regarding transmission of the disease, Perry said in an email Friday that the governor adopted the DHS guidelines in whole so as “not to single out specific projects, in order to maintain consistency and treat industries equitably.”
According to the DHS memo, its list of essential infrastructure is advisory, and not a federal directive or standard.
“Individual jurisdictions should add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion,” the memo reads.
“The governor continues to evaluate the measures TC Energy is putting in place to ensure they are effective in managing risk — and will seek additional measures if necessary to protect the health and safety of the community,” Perry said.
Since President Donald Trump resurrected Keystone XL soon after entering office, multiple lawsuits by environmentalist and indigenous rights groups have attempted, sometimes successfully, to block construction in the courts.
“We have a rest home here, and in Carter County, and it just doesn’t make sense to me that we would be exposing these people to increased risk without their knowledge, without their consent.”
—Baker farmer Wade Skikorski
Plaintiffs won an injunction in Montana federal court in 2018 that halted pipeline construction, but the Trump administration effectively overruled the courts last June, and construction was allowed to resume. A lawsuit by the same plaintiffs with the same goal and before the same judge was introduced in March, and is awaiting a ruling.
Keystone XL’s potential threat to the human health has long been a cornerstone of the anti-pipeline movement, with activists often highlighting potential impacts to drinking water, as well as sexual violence associated with temporary influxes of pipeline workers, but human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus has added a new angle of concern.
In another lawsuit against the pipeline filed in 2019 by the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, plaintiffs filed an order on March 17 asking the courts to stop construction of Keystone XL due to the threat posed by the coronavirus to Native Americans on the proposed route.
“Additionally, in light of the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the transient nature of the construction workers constructing and living in these man-camps pose serious and immediate public health and safety threats to the Tribes,” the filing said.
TC Energy responded to the filing by stating that the tribes failed to raise concerns about the coronavirus during public comment periods in 2014 and between Oct. 30 and Nov. 18, 2019. The first cases of what would become known as COVID-19 were reported to the World Health Organization by the Chinese government on Dec. 31. Montana officials announced the state’s first COVID-19 cases on March 13.
Wade Sikorski’s family has been farming since 1911 in Baker, where an on-ramp to Keystone XL will allow for the export of fracked oil from the Williston Basin to refineries and ports to the south. While Sikorski says oil has been good to Baker and the rest of Fallon County, he says he’s observed an intensification of severe weather during his lifetime that he attributes to climate change, and he opposes the Keystone XL pipeline for the sake of protecting the family farm from the impacts of climate change.
He says the coronavirus is a whole new reason to oppose Keystone XL. He’s observed pipeline construction before, and the continuous movement of people within communities that it requires. He says a TC Energy representative told him at a company event in early March that somewhere between 600 and 800 pipeline workers will be in Baker for construction.
“We have a rest home here, and in Carter County, and it just doesn’t make sense to me that we would be exposing these people to increased risk without their knowledge, without their consent,” Sikorksi said.
“It’s a pretty substantial risk that they would be taking if the virus started running rampant through here,” he said.
ABOUT HUNTER PAULI
Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.
Montana Free Press editor's note: We’ve asked reporters in communities around the state to file stories about how their towns are responding to the emerging presence of coronavirus. We’ll be publishing them in this space as they come in. News is changing fast during this ongoing story. These reports are necessarily snapshots in time. They may become outdated quickly. This piece was reported March 15-17, and published Tuesday, March 17.
by Paul Dragovich
Dottie Wilson opened the Infinity Bake Shoppe in Havre 2017, and it quickly became a favorite among locals.
Wilson was recently out of town for two weeks. She was in Salt Lake City for her daughter’s surgery. By the time she got back home Sunday, the local mood had changed drastically.
After months of upending life around the world, the novel coronavirus is now disrupting life in Havre, a town of nearly 10,000 located 43 miles south of the Canadian border. Despite zero confirmed cases of the respiratory disease in the region, the public schools have been shuttered, sports have been halted, local hospitals have shifted to emergency-only mode and changed admittance protocols, the local university announced it would transition to online classes for every program that could do so, and people were encouraged to stay away from each other — the same measures being implemented all over the state.
By Monday, local government had added to the changes. Inmate visitations at the regional detention center were barred, non-essential court hearings were delayed, and the public library closed.
On Monday afternoon, Wilson was in her bakery preparing for Tuesday’s opening. The checkout counter was littered with cleaning supplies. She was going “above and beyond” her usual cleansing routine, she explained.
Wilson was nervous about the economic impact that might hit her business, which employs a handful of people whom she said couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck. She has already temporarily parted with one of her older employees, a precautionary move both agreed was for the best best, given the virus’ particular danger to elderly people.
Wilson, like other business owners we talked to, is nervous that the worst is yet to come. She didn’t see any impact to last week’s business. The numbers were good. And even though Saturday was slow, it wasn’t abnormal, considering that snow pummeled the area for two days.
But that was before coronavirus mania hit the area. By Monday, she had already received order cancellations, among them one for a gathering at Montana State University-Northern, whose chancellor had announced the previous day he was in self-quarantine after coming into contact with Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, who has tested presumptively positive for COVID-19.
Tracy Job, who manages and co-owns Gary and Leo’s Fresh Foods IGA, is seeing the opposite trend at his store.
“I think there’s a problem we need to pay attention to and respond to, but I think we might have a little overreaction going on.”
—Havre Ford owner Charlie Steinmetz
Job said he began seeing changes in shoppers’ habits around the first of March. People began buying two or three times more than they usually did, he said. Then, starting last Wednesday, “it jumped up quite a bit,” he said. That was the day the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Shoppers have been stocking up on canned goods, pastas, flour, water, and, “for some reason,” a lot of toilet paper, he said.
“The last few few days have been fairly steady, fairly hectic,” Job said on Monday.
Job said the store has been working hard to restock the shelves, adding that “it’s been a bit of a challenge in the last couple of weeks, that’s for sure.”
He didn’t want to use the word “panic” to describe shoppers. They’re laughing about it, but also preparing, he said. He described his customers’ attitude as “better safe than sorry.”
Gary and Leo’s employs about 110 people. Management has told anyone who has a cough or fever to stay home. But he’s got plenty of staff to cover the work, Job said. And due to the recent uptick in business, a lot of employees are picking up extra hours.
Other Havre business owners were less cautious about using the word “panic.”
Charlie Steinmetz owns Havre Ford, a franchise dealer. As far as he’s concerned, it’s too early to tell what, if any, impact the coronavirus will have on his business. As of Monday, he hadn’t had any employees fail to show up. And though business was slow that day and some appointments cancelled, it was hard to pinpoint a reason, considering it had snowed all weekend.
He said he’s more concerned about the impacts of “hysteria” than of the virus.
“Maybe I’m looking at it backwards, but the panic that seems to be caused in our society at the moment is more frightening to me than a lot of other things,” Steinmetz said. “I think there’s a problem we need to pay attention to and respond to, but I think we might have a little overreaction going on.”
He said he went to Walmart and the toilet paper was “cleaned out.” He went to Gary and Leo’s and was lucky to find some.
Steinmetz is concerned that if the panic continues, it will affect his business, which employs 18 people, all of whom have kept calm and cool, he said.
He hasn’t had to really consider the possibility of cutting hours yet, he said, but it’s still pretty early.
In the meantime, Havre Ford is open for business. The service and sales departments are there for customers, Steinmetz said, using the interview as a chance to plug his business. “I can assure everybody that we’re not having a run on new vehicles right now. We got plenty in stock and we can just come in and get some deals done and not have to worry about fighting people about it like toilet paper.”
Another local business owner, Michael Garrity, opened the first of three craft breweries in town years ago. Triple Dog Brewing Co., a popular Havre watering hole, hosted a party Saturday.
Garrity said it went well. “People showed up and drank beer.”
But Garrity, like Steinmetz and Wilson, is concerned about what the future might hold. Business has slowed over the last two weeks, he’s noticed.
He understands the seriousness of the virus, but he also wants to responsibly help keep the mood light, the beer flowing, and people laughing.
He, too, has thought about the possibility of having to make some tough decisions. If he had to shut down for one or two weeks, that would put a damper a lot of things. He might have to lay off employees, he said.
Wilson, the bakery owner who, on her way back from Salt Lake City, stopped by several stores along the highway to stock up on sanitizer and toilet paper for her home and business, said she was nervous about the prospect of food service establishments being ordered to close — a restriction several other Montana counties imposed on Monday.
“If it happens it could be catastrophic,” she said. “No small business has equity to back that up. We’re not built that way.”
She had already thought about the possibility of implementing carry-out and delivery services if that were to happen.
On Tuesday, at noon, the Hill County Health Department ordered all restaurants, breweries, bars, and distilleries to close until March 24. Exceptions were made for drive-through, delivery and pick-up services.
By Ed Kemmick on Mar 16, 2020 02:33 pm
We’ve asked reporters in communities around the state to file stories about how their towns are responding to the emerging presence of coronavirus. We’ll be publishing them in this space as they come in. News is changing fast during this ongoing story. These reports are necessarily snapshots in time. They may become outdated quickly. This piece was reported over the weekend of March 14-15, and published Monday, March 16.
BILLINGS — In October, after Cass Sullivan’s father, Pat Sullivan, was diagnosed with dementia, he was moved from assisted living to the memory-care unit of Highgate Senior Living in Billings.
Sullivan had been visiting her 76-year-old father three days a week, usually over the lunch hour, until last Wednesday, when Highgate, reacting to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, banned visitors to the facility.
The next day, Sullivan said, “I just suddenly realized, ‘Geez, my dad’s on the first floor.’” So, she got in her car and headed his way, calling to tell him she’d be there in 10 minutes.
Cass Sullivan snapped a photo of her father, Pat, seen through the window of his room at a senior-living facility in Billings, when she visited him last week, and later posted it on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sullivan)“I said, ‘Stay in your bedroom and I’ll come along and see if I can get to your window.’ So that’s all we did was wave to each other and smile back and forth. But it cheered him up considerably.”
Later that day, Sullivan posted a picture of her father on Facebook, showing him smiling wanly behind a screened window in his room at Highgate.
Cass Sullivan snapped a photo of her father, Pat, seen through the window of his room at a senior-living facility in Billings, when she visited him last week, and later posted it on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sullivan)
“I figured maybe there were other people who hadn’t thought of this,” Sullivan said. “That’s kind of why I posted it.”
It’s been hard on both of them, Sullivan said, but she feels sorrier for the people whose loved ones are unable to comprehend the scope of the crisis playing out beyond the walls of their residence.
“My dad’s one of the lucky ones who still, for the most part, knows how to use his phone,” she said. “There are many people in there that don’t.”
Brook Hovland expressed similar sentiments in regard to his situation, that of a live-event producer looking at weeks or months of cancellations.
“We’re OK, personally, our company,” Hovland said. “We’re taking a big, big financial hit. But you look around and I see stagehands, I see cleaning people, I see a lot of people that are living paycheck to paycheck, and they’re out of work for at least the next several weeks. Those are the people that are going to be really impacted.”
Hovland, the owner of DiA Events, said the cancellations started coming in almost two weeks ago, when companies with a national presence decided to halt all travel for their employees. Then, over just two days at the end of last week, he had 18 more cancellations, including the NAIA 32-team women’s collegiate basketball championship, which was supposed to be played in Billings March 18-24. Hovland was going to provide all the audio and video services for that tourney, not to mention the confetti cannons.
“I’m not getting all wound up over everything,” Hovland said. “I just know a lot of this will be rescheduled for the fall. We’re taking advantage of the time to do maintenance on equipment and get ready for when the industry starts breathing again.”
But his thoughts turned once more to all the support personnel at live events, the security people, the ushers, the ticket-takers.
“There’s a lot of money that has been lost by a lot of companies, but the biggest concern is the individuals that are going to be out on the street if they can’t afford their rent, or what have you,” Hovland said. “That’s the scariest thing to me.”
For health-care workers and first responders in Yellowstone County, local authorities have taken steps to provide them with childcare assistance. Billings Clinic, the largest health care organization in the state, announced Sunday that in the wake of Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision to close schools for two weeks, it will be providing free childcare for essential health care workers.
The care will be provided at the Billings Public Library, which has halted regular services, for the children of first responders and essential workers from Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, and RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency.
Barbara Schneeman, the public information officer for the Unified Health Command, made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent, RiverStone, and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services, said the team is working on providing additional childcare services, given the size of the health care industry in Billings.
At a recent Business Healthcare Summit in Billings, Big Sky Economic Development noted that the city has 14,000 health care workers, accounting for 17 percent of the local workforce. Additionally, 40 percent of hospital inpatients in Billings come from outside Yellowstone County, and the estimated population of the Billings “Hospital Referral Region” is 620,000.
Partly because of that large presence, the Unified Health Command has been in place for many years and has already dealt with numerous public-health emergencies, Schneeman said, including the anthrax scare after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Ebola outbreak, flu-vaccine shortages, and the H1N1 flu virus of 2009.
“This group has been working together for a number of years, planning and revising plans and exercising and actually doing the work when our community has faced health care crises,” she said. But with COVID-19, she acknowledged, “it has risen to a whole other level of activity.”
“We continue to work pretty much around the clock,” she said. “It is challenging, it really is. This is an unprecedented time for all of us across the country.”
Other important steps taken so far include setting up COVID-19 testing sites, which opened Monday, at both city hospitals, with plans to use them until the county is ready to open a centralized community-testing site at the MetraPark complex. Health information phone lines have also been set up at Billings Clinic (255-8400), St. Vincent (237-8775), and RiverStone (651-6415).
The most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 response, Schneeman said, is that the situation has been changing so rapidly.
“It’s such a dynamic situation,” she said. “I huddle with my team every morning at 8:30, and we go over the work plan for literally four hours.” They decide what messages are important to communicate that day, then work on steps that can be taken to support that message.
“People are so hungry for information and need to know what’s going on, so we’ve kept it pretty solid when we’re talking about this.”
—Radio host Jason Harris
“I’m going to say a lot of times things change by noon,” Schneeman continued. “It’s a global-wide public health emergency, and we learn more every hour, almost.”
Accurate, serious-minded communication has never seemed so important to Jason Harris, radio host of the popular “Big J Show,” which is normally geared toward generating laughs and maintaining an air of boisterous irreverence.
“People are so hungry for information and need to know what’s going on, so we’ve kept it pretty solid when we’re talking about this,” Harris said.
There’s still entertainment to be had making fun of toilet-paper hoarders and conspiracy theorists, he said, but with so much misinformation circulating, “I feel like it’s kind of our job with a louder megaphone to say, ‘Nope, let’s just stick to the facts and operate on those.’”
The hunger for information is evidenced by the show’s Facebook traffic. The show has always had an active social media following, Harris said, but in the past week, interactions were up more than 300 percent, and post reaches were up more than 200 percent.
After more than 15 years on the radio, Harris said, he’s never seen anything like it. Normally, he said, there might be a local story that captures everyone’s attention for a day or two, or a big national story that is “kind of relevant but not super close to home.”
“This one,” he said, “is national and it’s local and it’s just every single day.”
Gary Buchanan, of Buchanan Capital Inc., has been in the financial-services industry for 42 years, and said the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was the only situation that came close to what’s happening now. Most startling was the plunge from record highs on Wall Street to a bear market.
“I’ve never seen anything this fast,” he said. “That’s what’s different. None of us saw this coming.”
Still, he said, there are glimmers of good news. Many of his clients have been with him for years, he said, and they have been schooled on the need to be calm and ride out the lows.
“They’ve been through enough markets to be steady,” he said, “but I think the panic on the health front is a whole new consideration.”
Buchanan applauded the efforts of state and local authorities to get out in front of the crisis, and he echoed the comments of others in saying that Montana has been fortunate that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 here until the state had a chance to learn from what has happened elsewhere in the country and around the world.
“We’ve been lucky to have a little more time to think this thing through,” Buchanan said.
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