What the coronavirus pandemic tells us about our relationship with the natural world

COVID-19 is fundamentally a story of humanity’s ever-encroaching relationship with all other living things on this planet

Coronavirus COVID-19 nature The Narwhal

Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

There are moments in life that are etched into our collective consciousness forever. When the planes struck the World Trade Center. When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash. When the world ground to a halt to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

It’s during moments like these that we often shift how we think about the world — and about our place in it.

It’s easy to feel invincible in a modern society in which we live longer than ever before, never have to see where our food comes from and can point a phone at the sky and have it tell us what constellation we’re looking at.

And yet, despite all of the technological advancements of the last century, we are still rendered powerless to nature — to hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes and, yes, viruses.

The story of COVID-19 is, at its core, a story of humanity’s ever-encroaching relationship with all other living things on this planet.

In a prescient piece in The New York Times in 2012, environmental journalist Jim Robbins wrote about a developing model of infectious disease that shows most epidemics are a result of things people do to nature.

“If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about,” Robbins wrote.

“Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty per cent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.”

Many ubiquitous modern diseases originated in animals. AIDS, for example, came about after hunters in Africa killed and butchered chimpanzees and the virus crossed into humans.

In the case of COVID-19, the virus is thought to have originated at a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, where it may have made the leap from bats to pangolins to humans.

As we push into increasingly remote places to extract oil, gas, minerals and trees, we come into contact with new species and drastically increase the likelihood of the emergence of new diseases. A warming world is also linked to an increase in the spread of disease (one need look no further than the spread of Lyme disease in Canada for an example).

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, argues that as the world struggles to respond to COVID-19, we risk missing the big picture.

“Pandemics are on the rise, and we need to contain the process that drives them, not just the individual diseases,” Daszak wrote. “Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it.”

He added that spillovers of diseases from animals to humans are “increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers. Unprecedented road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development, as well as globalized travel and trade, make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses.”

It’s easy right now to get caught up in the constant news updates of cancelled flights, closed borders and death tolls — and all of those things are surely important — but there is a much grander opportunity here to transform the way we think about our place in the world as one of the many living creatures that inhabit this planet.

As human activity wanes, we are now witnessing the natural world react to the slow-down in all sorts of ways: deer wandering the streets of Japan, Venice canals so clear you can see fishimproved air quality worldwide.

It’s a reminder of the tremendous impact humans have on the world around them, often without fully realizing it. It’s also a reminder of the natural world’s ability to rebound and our ability to shift our behaviour when we absolutely must.

Much ink has been spilled about what this all says about our ability to fight climate change, but a temporary decline in greenhouse gas emissions because of a deadly plague and a flailing economy doesn’t tell us much about whether this pandemic will bring lasting behavioural changes.

Will more people work remotely when this is all over? Will we ease up on massive business conferences? Will we all realize that making puzzles with our loved ones is more fulfilling than running around buying things? Will we value our concerts and classes and sports games on a new level? Maybe. But it’s too soon to say.

A few things do seem clear though.

First of all, trustworthy news and reliable facts are critically important during times of crisis. The Seattle Times, reporting at the epicentre of the biggest outbreak in the U.S., has seen a surge in readership and subscriptions.

Secondly, communities are coming together in ways we haven’t seen in many decades. Community-scale solutions are going to become ever more necessary as the pandemic spreads. Gardens. Friends. Family. Neighbours. This is a moment to take stock of the simple things and, perhaps, re-adjust our priorities moving forward.

Thirdly, change is possible. Politicians are now taking bold measures unimaginable even days ago. This pandemic will leave an enduring mark on all of us as we contemplate the fragility of life, the cracks in our globalized economy, our interconnectedness with all living things and, ultimately, our ability to envision a future different from the status quo. SOURCE

‘Them plants are killing us’: inside a cross-border battle against cancer in Ontario’s rust belt

Two communities — one in Canada, one in the U.S. — share both a border along the St. Marys River and a toxic legacy that has contributed to high rates of cancer. Now the towns are banding together to fight a ferrochrome plant planned to process chromite from Ontario’s Ring of Fire, in turn generating the so-called ‘Erin Brockovich contaminant’ hexavalent chromium

Algoma Steel Selva Rasaiah The Narwhal

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — A January storm has covered the bungalows here in sparkling snow. Men wearing gloves and hats pulled over their ears steer snow-blowers in and out of driveways, launching powder into the air.

This small city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is where the state kisses Ontario. An international bridge connects them across the St. Marys River that flows between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The river marks the international border between the U.S. and Canada.

Photographer Christopher Katsarov Luna drives slowly. I turn around in the passenger seat to watch Torry Ruddell in the back, her brown hair falling as she hunches over hand-drawn maps of the area. Many houses are coloured red, indicating that at least one person there has or had cancer.

“Down there my great-grandparents lived,” Ruddell, 44, points.

“It’s got a red circle,” I notice.

“Yeah, my great grandmother, my grandmother, my great aunt and all of my aunts had breast cancer,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone. “My great grandfather had skin cancer.” Her mother also survived uterine and cervical cancer.

We keep driving. “Those people right here, their son had brain cancer,” she says. “He passed away when we were young, still in high school.”

Sault Ste. Marie Michigan Cancer chromium-6 The Narwhal EHN

Ruddell holds a homemade map depicting incidences of cancer and other serious or rare illness in households surrounding the Northwestern Leather Company tannery, which dumped toxic chemicals, including chromium-6, into the local environment for half a century in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

There are other serious illnesses on the map, too, including heart and autoimmune diseases and deformities. But the homes in red are what we focus on.

Many things can increase one’s risk of developing cancer — genetics, smoking, exposure to the sun or radon gas — but there’s no doubt in her mind what’s making people sick.

Ruddell grew up across the street from the Northwestern Leather Company tannery that once stood in this area. From 1900 until it closed in 1958, it dumped toxic chemicals on site. Testing in the late 1970s by Sault Ste. Marie State College and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources found especially high levels of hexavalent chromium in the soil and groundwater.

Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, is a chemical made infamous by the film Erin Brockovich, which tells the true story of how Pacific Gas & Electric contaminated drinking water with chromium-6 in the town of Hinkley, Calif., causing people to develop cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as carcinogenic to humans, and studies have shown that workers exposed to chromium-6 have a higher instance of lung cancer. Even at low levels, chromium-6 can cause dermatitis and skin ulcers.

A man clears snow after a winter storm, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The Michigan tannery site was remediated in 2007, but data obtained by non-profit organization the Environmental Working Group shows the area still has unhealthy amounts of chromium-6 in its drinking water.

As a kid, Ruddell played on the former tannery site, wading in the mud up to her neck. She picked and ate berries that caused rashes doctors couldn’t explain. There were no signs or fencing warning people to stay away.

Today, a six-foot chain-link fence surrounds the site. On the other side of the fence, there’s a sign covered in snow. I climb over and brush away the snow. It warns against digging wells for drinking water: “Buried tannery waste located on site.”

Ruddell is photographed near the site of a closed tannery where she used to play in mud contaminated with chromium-6 in the community of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on Sunday, Jan., 19, 2020. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

But the tannery isn’t the only source of pollution here. There’s a scent in the Michigan air that’s familiar to people on both sides of the river. It smells like burning tires and rotten eggs.

I ask Ruddell where it’s coming from. “That’d be from across the water there,” she says.

On the other side of the river, a brown steel plant with tall chimneys sticks out against the white landscape. Algoma Steel,  the second-largest steel plant in Canada, has stood there since 1902. It belches fumes every day of the year, including Christmas, and has a special exemption from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks allowing it to emit benzene and benzo(a)pyrene, both cancer-causing pollutants, well above provincial health standards.

It’s too late to do anything about the legacy pollution from the tannery or the steel plant, but Ruddell is part of a growing movement of people in the U.S. and Canada organizing against what they perceive as a new threat.

I remember Ruddell’s words when I first called in December: “Them plants are killing us, and they want to put another one in there.” MORE

Ontario suspends environmental oversight rules, citing COVID-19


Queen’s Park, the building that houses the Ontario Legislative Assembly, in June 2018. Last week the Ontario government rolled back environmental protections, saying they rules would hamper its response to COVID-19. File photo by Alex Tétreault

The change allows the Progressive Conservative government to push forward projects or laws that could significantly impact the environment, without consulting or notifying the public. Critics say they fear the relaxed rules could be used to skirt environmental oversight for projects unrelated to COVID-19.

Under the new regulation, government ministries do not have to consult the public or consider environmental values as they make decisions. The regulation doesn’t specify that those decisions must be related to COVID-19.

“At this point I will give the benefit of the doubt to the government … but we will be watching very closely,” said Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur.

“The danger of this could be if it was done for political reasons.”

A spokesperson for Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, Andrew Buttigieg, said the government still believes environmental protection is a “vital consideration.” Officials will continue to consult with and notify the public about non-urgent projects, he added.

“This will ensure our government is able to quickly respond to time-sensitive needs that arise as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic,” Buttigieg said in an emailed statement.

“These steps are temporary in nature and will only be taken during this unprecedented emergency period.”

The new rules don’t specify what kind of coronavirus-related project could be accelerated by dropping the need for public consultation. When asked, Buttigieg didn’t specify, saying only that the loosened requirements hadn’t been used yet, and the public will be notified if they are.

The relaxed rules were put in place through a regulation passed April 1, under Ontario’s current state of emergency due to COVID-19. The regulation will remain in place until 30 days after the state of emergency ends.

The temporary rules suspend a key section of the Environmental Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation that gives the public the power to have a say in environment-related decision-making, and hold the government accountable for what it does or fails to do.

“At this point I will give the benefit of the doubt to the government… but we will be watching very closely,” said Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur. #onpoli

The regulation also exempts the government from publicly posting what it’s doing to Ontario’s Environmental Registry, an online tool that allows the public to comment on environment-related moves, though Buttigieg said that the government will continue to post bulletins about its actions there.

The broad exemption is an unnecessary overreach, said Robert Wright, a staff lawyer at the non-profit Ecojustice and former vice-chair of Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal. Instead, the government could have written the regulation to allow one-off exceptions to the rules, he added.

“In our view, this is opportunistic,” he said. “This statute has been so important for environmental protection. To take this opportunity to essentially gut it or environmentally gouge the protections, it’s illogical.”

Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said he doesn’t believe the government is up to anything nefarious, but he wants the government to assure the public that no major projects will be pushed through during the COVID-19 emergency. “We do need to be vigilant,” he said.

‘There is a pattern here that I’m concerned about’

The Doug Ford government has a history of gutting environmental laws. In the nearly two years since the premier took office, Ontario has cancelled 227 clean energy projects, wound down conservation programs, weakened endangered species protections and took away powers from the province’s environmental commissioner, who is meant to hold the government accountable.

There’s no evidence that this move is part of the same agenda, Arthur said, but it’s a “legitimate fear.”

Former Ontario environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe said no one objects to the government using all of its power to act quickly in the face of the pandemic. But the government has already demonstrated its willingness to drop environmental measures without consultation, as it did when Ford cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade program without notice, she added.

“There is a pattern here that I’m concerned about,” she said.

“I recognize that right now everybody I know in the public service is going flat out, doing the best they can. It’s hard to know if this is simply an error from rushing, or a reflection of the attitude of the government.”​​​​​​

Alberta made a similar move last week, temporarily loosening its rules so that companies don’t have to report environmental data to the province during the pandemic. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has paused enforcement of pollution laws on orders from the Trump administration.

If anything, Saxe said, governments should be increasing environmental protections during the pandemic. There’s evidence that air pollution is linked to higher death rates from COVID-19, a respiratory virus. And the climate crisis remains a looming problem, one that will hamper our ability to cope with all kinds of situations, she added.

“Yes, we have a current emergency,” Saxe said.

“But we can’t allow it to blind us to the much larger problem that is underway.”  SOURCE

Alberta crude could go negative, deficit could triple amid COVID-19 ‘reckoning,’ Kenney says


Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, shown here in 2018, said Tuesday that COVID-19 may be the province’s greatest challenge in a generation. File photo by Alex Tétreault

Crude prices could go negative, meaning “we will have to pay (buyers) to take it away,” Kenney said. And Alberta’s deficit is expected to triple from $7 billion to nearly $20 billion, derailing the premier’s plans to balance the budget. All this while the province battles a virus that officials expect could kill between 400 and 3,100 Albertans by the end of summer, Kenney said.

“I will not sugarcoat it,” Kenney said in a televised address to Albertans. “You need to know what we are up against.”

By some measures, Alberta hasn’t been as hard-hit by the novel coronavirus as Ontario and British Columbia — the rate of Albertans who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 is lower, Kenney said. As of Tuesday night, 1,373 Albertans have tested positive, with 42 in hospital and 26 deaths.

Economically, however, Alberta can expect to be hurt more by the economic shutdown caused by the virus, Kenney said. Its recovery will also be slower.

Since early March, Saudi Arabia and Russia have been flooding the market with excess oil and gas, causing a global crash in energy prices that was worsened when the pandemic caused a drop in demand. At one point last month, Canadian crude cost about US$3 per barrel, less than a Big Mac. Oilpatch companies, already hammered for the last few years by a previous crude price plunge, are now awaiting details of a federal bailout.

“I cannot overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, the economy and the financial security of Albertans,” Kenney said.

The pandemic, and actions taken to address it by the Alberta government, have forced many businesses in the province to temporarily shutter. Kenney said he knows Albertans are “under huge financial stress,” and want physical distancing measures to end so life can return to normal. But the province’s projections show the orders will have to remain in place at least for the month of April, perhaps until the end of May.

“We simply cannot let the virus loose in Alberta,” he said. “That would create a public health catastrophe, which would force an even more stringent lockdown in the future, leaving our economy even further battered.”

Earlier Tuesday, Kenney warned that unemployment in Alberta could skyrocket to 25 per cent, speaking to an online energy conference. He did not repeat that statistic in his speech to Albertans, but pointed to his government’s recent investment of $1.5 billion in TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline as proof that the government is “taking control of our economic destiny.”

“We will do more, including a huge new investment in job-creating infrastructure projects,” he said.

Crude prices could go negative while Alberta’s deficit is expected to triple. All this while the province battles a virus that officials expect could kill between 400 and 3,100 Albertans by the end of summer.

First projections of how hard virus could hit Alberta

On Tuesday night, Kenney released the first public projections of how much Alberta could be affected by COVID-19. Though the modelling by public health officials shows the province is faring better than hard-hit countries like Italy and the United States, Alberta isn’t out of the woods yet, the Premier said.

Kenney divulged two scenarios: a probable one, and another that’s considerably more serious. Under the probable scenario, 800,000 Albertans could be infected with COVID-19 from the beginning of the outbreak to the end of summer, with anywhere between 400 and 3,100 people projected to die and infections peaking in mid-May. In the other scenario, which Kenney said he hopes to avoid, infections peak later, about 1 million people are infected and between 500 and 6,600 people die from the virus.

If not for the measures the province has already taken — shutting down non-essential businesses, asking people to remain home, etc. — Kenney said the numbers could be far worse. In that worst-case reality, 1.6 million could have been infected and 32,000 killed.

“These numbers can be overwhelming, but these models are not a done deal,” Kenney said. “I want Albertans to see them as a challenge. Maybe the greatest challenge of our generation.”

Kenney said the province would release more detailed projections Wednesday, along with details of a $500-million boost to healthcare funding. The Premier’s United Conservative government has come under fire in recent weeks for previous cuts to health care and doctor pay. SOURCE


Kenney’s billions for Keystone XL is ballast for a sinking ship

Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19: Protecting People, Protecting Rights

The past month has brought sweeping, unprecedented change as individuals, communities and nations around the world struggle to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Efforts to contain the virus include significantly increased government powers and corresponding limits on civil liberties, as well as disruptions to individuals’ ability to work, socialize and care for one another.

In Canada, Indigenous Peoples stand to be disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and government measures intended to limit its spread. These impacts are a direct result of the historic and ongoing process of colonization. Below, we highlight some of the key issues raised by our clients and other Indigenous groups as the pandemic situation evolves.

Health & Culture

It is widely acknowledged that Indigenous Peoples are more likely than other Canadians to experience severe health outcomes as a result of COVID-19.

Indigenous communities have, on average, higher percentages of members with pre-existing health issues, families living in substandard and overcrowded housing, and lack of access to clean drinking water and adequate medical services.

These factors are exacerbated by the historic trauma of the introduction of infectious diseases to Indigenous communities by Europeans, and by the fact that Indigenous societies place a priority on respecting and learning from Elders, who in turn are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Critically, the factors that contribute to Indigenous communities’ susceptibility to COVID-19 are not new – they are well-known issues which exist as a consequence of decades of action, or inaction, on the part of the federal and provincial governments to ensure the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples are also uniquely affected by social distancing requirements intended to slow the spread of the virus.

Health professionals have issued warnings that communities should temporarily halt cultural activities such as sweat lodges in order to avoid transmitting the disease to Elders or other vulnerable members.

While necessary for health reasons, these directions run contrary to Indigenous Peoples’ approach to relying on familial and community support in times of crisis, and make it more difficult for communities to maintain ties to their cultures and traditions. It also imposes new challenges for Indigenous Peoples seeking to exercise their own laws and maintain traditional governance systems.

Title & Rights

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many First Nations have closed their band offices, restricted access to their communities and otherwise diverted resources to deal with pressing health concerns.

At the same time, First Nations are reporting that the Crown and proponents continue to send referrals for resource development projects in their territories. These ongoing operations increase the risk of the pandemic undermining Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to safeguard their ancestral lands for the use and benefit of current and future generations.

Some provincial governments have issued interim guidelines for consultation which direct Crown decision-makers to take into account First Nations’ ability to respond to referrals in light of the pandemic.

Overall, however, the Crown has yet to clarify how it will protect Indigenous Peoples’ title and rights during the COVID-19 crisis, and in particular, whether it will continue to make decisions which could affect those rights at a time when First Nations cannot meaningfully participate in consultation.

More broadly, the Crown and industry should not use this time as an opportunity to advance projects on Indigenous lands in the absence of proper consultation. This is especially important given that many courts in Canada have limited or suspended hearings, resulting in potential delays in Indigenous Peoples’ ability to challenge government decisions which affect their title and rights.

Resource Development & Work Camps

Indigenous Peoples have repeatedly raised concerns about risks associated with industrial development on their ancestral territories during the pandemic, including the risk that transient workers in remote industrial camps will spread the coronavirus to their communities.

The former Chief Medical Health Officer for Northern Health in B.C. has likened the work camps to “land locked cruise ships” which, if not shut down, will become “COVID-19 incubators” which will place both workers and local communities at heightened risk.

The need for urgent action on this issue was highlighted last week, when a worker at LNG Canada’s planned export facility in Kitimat, the intended end-point for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, tested positive for COVID-19.

To date, the Crown has largely ignored Indigenous Peoples’ concerns about this issue. Instead, large-scale industrial projects have been designated as “essential services.” As a result, resource projects, including the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline and TransMountain expansion project, are proceeding despite the recognized health risks posed to Indigenous communities.

Looking Ahead

Less than six weeks ago, national headlines were dominated by the dispute between Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and the Coastal GasLink pipeline project. Indigenous organizations and legal professionals across Canada highlighted the significant underlying legal issues associated with the dispute, including the outstanding issue of who has the right to make decisions on lands subject to Indigenous title.

This dispute has not gone away, nor is it resolved. Indigenous Peoples remain committed to protecting their lands and their rights, regardless of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Whatever the circumstances, the Crown remains obligated to act honourably towards Indigenous Peoples.

In the current situation, the Crown must take immediate steps to ensure proper, equitable access to health care for Indigenous communities.

Just as crucially, the Crown must ensure that industrial development does not proceed unchecked while First Nations scramble to protect their most vulnerable members from the potentially devastating impacts of COVID-19.

The Crown has a choice in how it addresses Indigenous issues in the face of the pandemic. Its response could replicate Canada’s history of introducing disease and disregarding Indigenous concerns, or it could build a new path forward that supports Indigenous Peoples in a way that is responsive to and respectful of their specific priorities and issues, including the overriding importance of protecting their title, rights and ancestral lands.

Like the rest of Canada, Indigenous Peoples are being asked to make difficult sacrifices in the name of our collective health and wellbeing. They should not also be forced to choose between protecting their members’ health and their continued ability to exercise their title and rights.


Over the coming weeks, First Peoples Law is hosting a series of “Kitchen Table Chats” in response to the evolving COVID-19 situation to provide an opportunity for Indigenous people to share information and develop strategies to help their communities stay safe and healthy.

If you’d like to register for an upcoming session, please email us at kitchentablechat@firstpeopleslaw.com with your contact information, position, and the name of your organization/community.

Kate Gunn is a lawyer at First Peoples Law Corporation. Kate completed her Master’s of Law at the University of British Columbia. Her most recent academic essay, “Agreeing to Share: Treaty 3, History & the Courts,” was published in the UBC Law Review.

Coronovirus pandemic could cripple the nuclear industry

Sellafield was built on the Cumbria coast directly across the Irish Sea from Northern Ireland. Managers at the plant, were issued with a formal caution in February over a leak of radioactive liquid.

Nuclear power facilities have this one problem that is unique to the nuclear industry, and that is, the need for exceptional security. No other industry has these risks of radioactive accident and special vulnerability to terrorism. The IAEA defines nuclear security as:

The prevention and detection of and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities.

According to Mycle Schneider, in the World Nuclear Status Report , reactor safety depends above all on a:

…’culture of security’, including the quality of maintenance and training, the competence of the operator and the workforce, and the rigour of regulatory oversight. So a better-designed, newer reactor is not always a safer one.

Experts say that the

largest single internal factor determining the safety of a nuclear plant is the culture of security among regulators, operators and the workforce – and creating such a culture is not easy.

This security risk brings with it, the need for a very high level of secrecy. From its inception in the Manhattan Project in 1942, workers were under strict rules of secrecy, and ‘compartmentalization’, whereby the knowledge of different aspects of nuclear production was divided and separated. This system continues today under the Department of Energy. Huge numbers of classified documents are kept in US government vaults. In the UK, under the Official Secrets Act, information on nuclear production is guarded. Because of governmental and corporate secrecy, as well as a management culture which sometimes discourages proper documentation, information about the processes of nuclear power production is not easily shared.

There was already a shortage of skilled nuclear workers, even before COVID19 hit the world. The most recent Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) reports “an acute need for talent” in the nuclear sector. Nuclear professionals are an aging group, with a “vast wave of imminent retirements.” The onslaught of the pandemic could mean some shortages of well-informed, capable professionals working at nuclear reactors, and at other nuclear facilities, such as waste management and transport. And there’s that even more secretive area, nuclear weapons production and management.

Of course, there’s that whole other workforce – the nuclear security officers, whose job is just as critical as that of the physicists and engineers. There’s quite a history of anti- nuclear activists breaking into nuclear facilities in order to demonstrate their vulnerability to terrorist attacks..

The nuclear industry is well aware of the pandemic’s threats. And indeed, the evidence is here already. Charles Digges, in Bellona, reports:

As the Covid-19 virus grinds world economies to a halt, several national nuclear operators are weighing how to keep sensitive and vulnerable infrastructure chugging along in the face of staff shortages due to the illness.

French nuclear workers are in fear of coronavirus infection. 1000 staff at Sellafield nuclear facility are self-isolating amid the pandemic. Britain’s Trident nuclear submarine base is in the grip of a Coronavirus scare. In USA, the long-drawn out construction of nuclear Plant Vogtle is being further delayed, as more workers are being tested for the virus.

The pandemic is sure to have a delaying impact on nuclear construction, including in theSmall Nuclear Reactor sector, which is still pretty much in the blueprint stage, anyway.

The nuclear lobby is of course, fighting to win hearts and minds, with some persuasive propaganda. Their theme is the value of nuclear research reactors in industry and health, and especially in the detection of viruses. And they do have a point. Still radionuclides are being produced by non-nuclear means. The role of small nuclear research reactors is increasingly looking like the fig leaf on an unsustainable and super-expensive nuclear power industry.

In the meantime, as trade and industry slow down, with the global march of this pandemic, the nuclear industry is already suffering a set-back. The loss of well-informed staff, whether in the professional area, or at lower levels in the workforce hierarchy, poses a special problem for this industry, with its secretive culture. Nuclear power has a unique safety requirement, meaning that its reactors may need to be shut down, or at least, have their operations cut back.


Indigenous leaders call for pipeline shutdown over COVID-19 fears

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, construction continues on the controversial billion-dollar Coastal Gaslink pipeline in northern British Columbia.

TORONTO — As construction continues on the controversial, billion-dollar Coastal Gaslink pipeline in northern British Columbia, Indigenous communities living near the route fear that out-of-town workers could spread COVID-19 to the resource-strapped region.

First Nations leaders, many of whom supported the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the project, are now calling on the federal and provincial governments to shut down the construction. In an open letter, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said the ongoing construction heightens the risk of transmission and puts both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities at risk.

“The risks posed by continued work on the Coastal GasLink project are ones that were not consented to, and ones that leaders and officials raised warnings about in advance of the project’s approval,” the group said in its letter.

‘Uncharted times’: Planning for wildfire season amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Province still figuring out how it will fight fires and handle evacuations without spreading coronavirus

A firefighter surveys the Chuckegg Creek wildfire near High Level, Alta., last year. The blaze burned more than 331,000 hectares at its height, causing some 4,000 people to flee their homes for two weeks. (Josh Lambert )

For the last four years, cities and towns near large forests and woodland across Alberta have known spring brings increased wildfire risk. This year, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is throwing a wrench into any plans to deal with wildfire season.

As of Monday afternoon, the province had more than 1,300 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, according to the government’s official tally.

In High Level, a town of 4,000 roughly 740 kilometres north of Edmonton, the sports complex has previously served as an evacuation centre for other nearby communities. But it won’t be used this year, as Alberta Health Services has taken it over as an assessment centre for COVID-19 cases in the region.

“It’s just a collision of, I don’t know what to call it, the perfect storm, because we don’t have places to go,” said High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer.

“If we do have a fire where people have to evacuate, how do we keep people separated from the people that may have been infected?” she added.

There are blazes burning to the north and south of her jurisdiction since spring 2019. They have been under control since last June.

Fires already burning

While it may seem unusual to think of fire planning while snow blankets much of Alberta, two weeks ago, the province’s wildfire app showed five fires burning in the province, represented by green icons to indicate they were all “under control.” By the end of that week, there was a sixth.

Last year, one of them, the Chuckegg Creek fire, scorched more than 331,000 hectares, causing residents of High Level and neighbouring areas to flee their homes for two weeks.

Though out of control fires are in the rearview mirror for Alberta communities at the moment, they have to prepare for what could be in store this year in a matter of weeks. (Josh Lambert )


“They’re all very afraid of the coronavirus reaching our community,” said McAteer of her residents.

She is now looking for alternative arrangements to the sports complex, in anticipation of an influx of people fleeing fires coming to her town for refuge.

One possibility is nearby campsites, vacant for now. McAteer says they were used by firefighters last year, but the fire crews could move to hotels this year, since the businesses are shut down due to the pandemic.

That would work only if High Level itself did not have to be evacuated again.

There was “very little snow” in High Level this year, McAteer said. While much of Alberta’s southern parts had a summer of rain in 2019, drought-like conditions remained in place for the north.

A fire like the Chuckegg Creek fire could play tricks, like it did last year. “In some places it goes 20 feet underground, and it just smoulders and smoulders, and then flares up when the conditions are right, especially if we have high winds.”

How to evacuate the whole town?

“I guess we’re all in uncharted times now,” McAteer said.

It would be hard to send entire communities to bigger cities, she added, as there is COVID-19 in the larger centres such as Edmonton, Slave Lake and Grande Prairie. “These are the places where we would normally go to.”

She is considering talks with the Northwest Territories, only a two-hour drive north, but the territory has currently shut down its inter-provincial border as a precautionary measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Slave Lake and Peace River are also adapting to facing a wildfire season coupled with a pandemic.

A scene from last year’s Chuckegg Creek Fire. This year, firefighters will have to be mindful of physical distancing while they do their jobs, whenever they can. (Josh Lambert )


Peace River has previously used its ski shelter as a physical evacuation centre, but this year, it said it would use the phone and the internet to help evacuees access food and shelter in the community, as the COVID-19 risk is too high.

Meanwhile, Alberta Wildfire issued a news release at the beginning of March to alert news outlets wildfire season had started and was expected to last until October.

“Be a boy scout, be prepared, is always a good model,” said Mike Flannigan, who teaches wildfire science at the University of Alberta.

“In a week or two, we could go from snow to sweat and fires could be popping up all over.”

Flannigan said it is impossible to predict the intensity of this year’s fire season, but trends of the last few years provide a clue.

“On average, we are warming,” he said, citing British Columbia’s record-breaking fire seasons for 2017 and 2018. “Alberta, 2019, it was the second-busiest fire season since 1981.”

Firefighter staffing levels a concern

Front-line workers are also contemplating what a busy fire season could mean if they are dealing with a public-health pandemic.

“Usually, you have someone backing you up [on a 65-mm firehose]; it’s very hard to do on your own,” said volunteer firefighter Josh Lambert, who helped subdue the Chuckegg Creek fire last year.

WATCH | Firefighters spray edges of the Chuckegg Creek fire with water:

Firefighters fend off flames from the Chuckegg Creek fire south of High Level, Alta., in May 2019. It was one of the largest in the province, burning more than 331,000 hectares at its height and forcing about 4,000 people from their homes. (Josh Lambert) 0:08


Lambert said fire crews do their best to follow public health recommendations, but there are some activities you cannot conduct when standing two metres apart from anyone else at all times.

“You’re going to be crewed in a truck where you have to sit right beside people,” he said.

“Everything is getting cleaned after we get in and out of firetrucks. Everything is cleaned right after we get back from a call. Extra personal protective equipment is required as well, just to be as safe as we can.”

Lambert, who also lives in High Level, said he is optimistic the town has learned lessons from last year that will help it mitigate the impacts of any large fires. But he does have concerns about getting deployed to other communities.

Fires may disappear underground only to return in the presence of high winds and dry weather, experts say. (Josh Lambert )


“If there was any other department, that’s when you get worried, because there’s a cluster of a bunch more people,” he said.

More than 300 fire service members in isolation

Meanwhile, the Alberta Fire Fighters Association, which represents 3,200 firefighters, has staffing concerns.

“[The pandemic] is going to tax the system in ways we’ve never seen,” said association president Brad Readman.

In previous years, firefighters from other provinces have flown in to help crews in Alberta, and vice-versa, as needed. That may be complicated by travel restrictions, flight cancellations and layoffs at Canada’s major airlines.

“Unless you lived through the Spanish flu, this is uncharted territory for all of us,” he said.

A few firefighters in Alberta have tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of the interview, Readman said 316 members of the AFFA were in self-isolation either due to recent travel or cold-like symptoms. That could mean a shortage of firefighters if wildfire season becomes intense.

“Fires don’t stop during a pandemic,” he said. “Life still goes on even when there is a medical pandemic.”

Readman was looking for firefighters and other front-line health workers to get tested in a separate stream than the rest of the general population, in order to make sure they could be back at work as quickly as possible.

The association has asked the provincial government for accelerated testing so they are not lining up with the rest of Albertans.

An Alberta Health Services employees speak to a person at a drive-thru testing facility in Calgary. The Alberta Fire Fighters Association has asked the provincial government for dedicated testing sites for firefighters. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)


Alberta Health Services spokesperson Tom McMillan said testing has been prioritized for front-line workers, including doctors, nurses and firefighters.

But AHS is not considering creating an entirely separate stream.

“We have accelerated testing to ensure that health-care workers who need testing get it as soon as possible,” McMillan wrote in an email.

Province exploring ‘various scenarios’

CBC News asked for an interview with Paul Wynnyk, Alberta’s deputy minister of Municipal Affairs, who is also in charge of the provincial operations centre overseeing emergency response, but spokesperson Timothy Gerwing said he was unavailable.

In a statement, Gerwing said the province’s emergency management professionals “are capable of managing several emergencies at the same time.”

Gerwing also wrote the same professionals would work with chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw “to inform any potential measures to keep Albertans safe” in the event of community evacuations, and are in constant contact with the health department as well as Alberta Wildfire.

The government’s Alberta Wildfire page acknowledges the pandemic is a particular concern, and says it is drafting a response plan.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen at a press conference last month, said Monday that he would step up efforts to monitor wildfires this year because of the strain that COVID-19 could put on firefighting resources. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)


Monday afternoon, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney provided a glimpse of what that plan could include.

He said there would be fire bans put in place in wilderness areas before this weekend as a preventative measure;  helicopter surveillance flights; and fire watch tower staffing would start earlier than normal.

“To be blunt, we are quite concerned about the possibility of managing this pandemic and then having a lot of wildfires at the same time like we did last summer or spring,” Kenney said.

Wildfire smoke-related air pollution could target the same vulnerable populations with respiratory problems and other underlying health conditions that are particularly susceptible to the virus.

The provincial govenment’s wildfire map currently shows six fires under control on its territory. Alberta Wildfire says it’s struck a team to look into the logistics of battling wildfires during a pandemic. (Alberta Wildfire screengrab)


There may be one silver lining yet, according to Flannigan.

Though global warming means fire seasons are generally stretching in length and intensity, he pointed out most wildfires are still the results of human activity.

“If parks are closed and people are still in a stay-at-home policy, then there are still not too many people out camping,” he said.

“If there are fewer people out and about working or recreating, then there is less likely to be human-caused fires,” he said.



Number of workers at B.C.’s Site C dam project rises, as some call for shutdown over COVID-19


Community fears health services can’t cope with demand if coronavirus hits site

Construction will continue on some portions of the Site C hydroelectric dam jobsite in northern B.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the province has deemed the work an essential service. (Site C Clean Energy Project)

While on-site activity has shut down for all but “essential” workplaces across the country, construction continues at the Site C hydroelectric dam project in northern British Columbia, where nearly 1,000 workers are at camp, including hundreds who were flown in over the past couple of weeks.

This despite the fact that 10 people at the site are in self-isolation for symptoms of COVID-19, and there is no publicly available information about how many workers are being tested or how physical-distancing rules can be critically observed in a worksite setting.

This has made people in the nearby community of Fort St. John nervous.

“We don’t have the capacity if something were to go wrong,” Fort St. John councillor Trevor Bolin told CBC News.

Bolin said the town of 20,000 only has seven ventilators on hand, and he’s among those that fear the town’s health services would be overrun by an outbreak at the nearby camp.

“How can this be mitigated to ensure everybody’s safety and health, not only at the camp, but in the community as well, because we are so closely connected?”

Petition to suspend work

A petition circulating online is calling on B.C. Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to suspend work at Site C and all remote-camp mega-projects in B.C., in part because of the concern that they “could easily overwhelm the local health-care system.”


The 979 workers at the Site C camp include several hundred that have been flown in over the past couple of weeks, some of whom came from outside the country.

BC Hydro, which owns the dam project, said all workers arriving from other countries must adhere to self-isolation guidelines before coming to the camp, and that pre-screening and temperature scans are now being used to determine who may access the site.

The nearly thousand workers is an increase from the 819 who were there as recently as March 30. BC Hydro said the overall number is still significantly less than the number of workers it would typically have on site at this time of year.

The province of B.C. has deemed the ongoing construction of the dam an essential service. Henry has defended the continued construction at industrial sites, saying last week, “I think it’s important to recognize you can’t just abandon a large mine or a large industrial site. That’s not safe … for the local communities or the environment.”

‘It is not an emergency service’

Henry added that the regional health authority, Northern Health, has been active working with the industrial camps to make sure they’re scaling back in order to put required measures in place to reduce the risk of people at the camp and in nearby communities.

The last few weeks have revealed a discrepancy between various provincial measures when it comes to construction sites.

BC Hydro said that coronavirus testing is taking place on-site and that they have ‘not been notified of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Site C.’ (Site C Clean Energy Project)


Last Friday, the province of Ontario deemed the only industrial construction allowed to continue is “critical” work such as petrochemical plants and refineries, as well as the production of personal protective equipment and “products directly related to combating the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Fort St. John councillor Byron Stewart thinks B.C. needs to take a stricter stance with the Site C dam project.

“It is not an emergency service. It is not a front-line service,” said Stewart. “I personally would like the province to come in, shut it down and send everybody home.”

On-site COVID-19 testing

As a precaution, BC Hydro said that coronavirus testing is taking place at their on-site health clinic and that they have “not been notified of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Site C.”

David Conway, a BC Hydro community relations manager for Site C, told CBC News that physical distancing is in effect on the jobsite. “My understanding is each one of our prime contractors is applying that to the specific work that’s being done.”

WATCH | BC Hydro spokesman David Conway talks about physical distancing at Site C

But the idea of physical distancing on the job has been challenged by some former site employees who spoke to CBC News. (CBC agreed to conceal their identities because they fear speaking out could cost them future work.)

One former Site C contractor said skilled labour is “impossible to do” on your own. He added that much of the work is “usually unsafe” if it isn’t performed in teams or groups.

“You can’t build a dam, you can’t build a coffee shop, you can’t build a house, you can’t build anything [working] two metres apart,” he said.

An ironworker who was last at Site C in mid-March told CBC News that when he was there, some crews were still “working side by side with each other.”

‘Not maintaining that six-feet rule’

CBC News reached out to one of the major contractors at Site C, Peace River Hydro Partners (PRHP), about whether physical distancing is taking place on the jobsite.

PRHP Communications Manager Jamie Bodnarchuk responded that the contractor “has adjusted work scopes according to BC Hydro’s directives.”

When asked whether work can be safely done if crews are kept at a distance from each other, Bodnarchuk wrote, “The safety of our workers is our number one priority … we have also adjusted some of our work scopes and construction tasks to accommodate new and evolving safety guidelines.”

Jamie Bodnarchuk, communications manager for Peace River Hydro Partners, said that when it comes to work at the Site C, ‘the safety of our workers is our number one priority.’ (Peace River Hydro Partners)


Conway said that if workers feel unsafe, they should stop working and report it. “We would encourage people, if they feel the situation is unsafe … speak out. And we would encourage them to come directly to us.”

Dining in close quarters 

It’s not only the proximity of people working together, but also socializing, that has some concerned.

The ironworker who did not want to be named said that when he was there three weeks ago, about 200 people ate together in a dining hall.

“They tried to limit seating on the tables to three people. But the tables, they’re so small that you can’t do that. No matter where you go, you’re not maintaining that six-feet rule.”

BC Hydro said that the number of chairs in the dining room has been reduced and the spacing between the tables has increased so physical distancing can be observed. But they do concede there might be more than 50 people in the dining room at a time.

David Conway, a spokesperson for BC Hydro, said that if workers at Site C feel unsafe, they should stop working and report it. (Christer Waara/CBC)


B.C. health officials have banned gatherings of over 50 people in the province. People who ignore public health orders can now be jailed or fined upward of $25,000 and businesses have been ordered to close if they cannot operate under physical-distancing rules.

Those that have lived at Site C, like the ironworker, are worried about what could happen if there’s a confirmed case. He says when people get sick at camps like Site C, it can spread like “wildfire.”

“I think it’s crazy,” he said, adding that he believes they’re “putting their men at risk up there.”


How to Beat Coronavirus Capitalism: Part 2


This is the moment when we can change everything. Ideas that were dismissed as too radical just weeks ago are starting to seem like the only reasonable path to get out of this crisis and prevent future ones.

In these times of physical distancing, we have to stay connected, so we can stay organized. We need to use every tool we have to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s words, and see each other’s faces as we strategize about what it means to protect our neighbors, our rights, and our planet.

More than 90,000 people have already seen Part 1 of this online teach-in series — join us on Thursday at 5pm ET to continue the conversation with Naomi Klein, Astra Taylor, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by Hari Kondabolu and featuring a musical performance by Lia Rose.

How to beat coronavirus capitalism (Part 2) graphic.

What: How to Beat Coronavirus Capitalism (Part 2)

An online teach-in with Naomi Klein, Astra Taylor, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by Hari Kondabolu.

Sponsored by Haymarket Books, The Leap, Debt Collective, and Democratic Socialists of America

When: Thursday, April 9 2020. 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM ET. 

Where: Online — register through Eventbrite to receive a link on the day of the event.

Register here.