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Know the West

A crude virus: How ‘man camps’ can cause a COVID surge

The Keystone XL Pipeline threatens to spread more than just oil through Indigenous communities.

This story is a collaboration between High Country News and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Indigenous peoples have long challenged the proposed transnational Keystone XL pipeline, citing the risk of environmental disasters in their homelands. But now, tribes and advocates are alarmed for a different reason: the possibility that the proposed pipeline worker camps in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska could become dangerous sources of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“The lack of adequate health care within reservations makes this an incredibly frightening disease for Indian country,” said Wesley Furlong, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the Fort Belknap Tribe and Rosebud River Sioux Tribe. “So the prospect of potentially thousands of out-of-state workers coming in to work on the pipeline, into these rural areas in Montana and South Dakota, is a particularly recent threat for the tribes.”


While TC Energy waits for decisions on the pipeline water-crossing permits, pipeline worker camps have already sprouted, and many more are planned or under construction in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Tribes and environmental and health advocates worry that worker outbreaks of COVID-19 will spread into the numerous tribal communities — which are all within driving distance — if federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency (OSHA) are not actively monitoring and reporting worker safety compliance. The Northern Plains region is already severely affected by primary care shortages, and many of the Indian Health Service facilities in this area have outdated equipment and are underfunded

“We don't have the resources to take care of the huge coronavirus outbreak here in Cheyenne River Reservation,” said Joye Braun (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), a frontline field organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, who lives in her tribe’s territory, which is next to three South Dakota man camps. Since Nov. 4, the tribe has been considered to be at critical risk for COVID-19, according to its response plan; many tribal citizens have been referred to hospitals in other states.

A view of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation from the bank of the Missouri River in Forest City, South Dakota. Nearby, there are three oil worker man camps.

In Phillips County, Montana, where the U. S portion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, two pipeline construction workers for TC Energy tested positive for COVID-19 on July 28. They were living in a hotel with other oil workers — temporary shelter until the new camps, known as “man camps,” are built. In the midst of a surging pandemic, the influx of hundreds of oil workers into remote areas clearly poses additional risks to Indigenous communities already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

In a letter sent to Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in early September, over 40 environmental and public health organizations demanded that OSHA publicly report on oil and gas company compliance with COVID-19 work plans and worker testing. No such reporting has occurred, however.

At this time, there appear to be no formal studies of oil and gas industry outbreaks, though there have been many coronavirus outbreaks in North America and around the world. It is common practice for local public health departments to exclude non-residents’ cases from their official daily disease counts. That means that sick people who had temporarily relocated for work — as many pipeline workers do — are not counted as cases in whatever county they were working in; instead, their cases are referred back to their local public health departments in their home counties. This reporting practice troubles Indigenous communities and tribal nations, which are already alarmed about COVID-19 outbreaks in nearby man camps. It would not be the first time a pipeline outbreak ravaged Indigenous communities.

Prior to the pandemic, area tribes — including the Rosebud Sioux and the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation — were fighting the Keystone Pipeline and its addition, the Keystone XL Pipeline, over treaty violations and environmental concerns. Studies of the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota showed the link between oil worker man camps and gender and sexual violence against Indigenous women. In Canada, a 1,200-page report on the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls and non-binary people found a staggering increase in sexual violence caused by transient workers living in man camps near Indigenous territories and communities.

An oil worker man camp in Fort Berthold, North Dakota, in 2015. Studies of the Bakken oil boom show the link between man camps and gender and sexual violence against Indigenous women. With new man camps in Montana and South Dakota, the spread of COVID-19 is an additional concern.

The COVID-19 rate among American Indian and Alaskan Natives is currently nearly three times that of whites; Indigenous people are hospitalized at a rate 5.3 times higher than whites and have been dying at 1.4 times the rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Though COVID-19 is firmly entrenched in the Northern Plains, the region’s low population density appears to be keeping its case numbers low; they’re currently among the lowest in the U.S. At the same time, the Northern Plains have some of the highest overall infection and death rates. South Dakota still lacks statewide mask or social distancing mandates — the most basic public health measures to help slow the spread — and the governor has refused to close businesses in the state.

In contrast, tribes across the Northern Plains have enforced mask mandates and closed their territories to non-residents. Some have even set up checkpoints on the roads through their reservations.

South Dakota Gov. has downplayed the pandemic and actively battled the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Lakota Sioux tribes over their COVID-19 checkpoints. Noem insists that her anti-COVID-19 campaign which rejects the CDC’s proven public health guidelines — is a success, despite the fact that her state has one of the worst infection rates in the country.

“I don't care what Kristi Noem says,” said Joye Braun of the Indigenous Environmental Network on the Cheyenne River Reservation. “I know that we have had to send patients all the way outside of the state just so they can get some kind of care.”

If the Keystone XL Pipeline leads to a rise in the number of cases on the tribal reservations in its path, it would not be the first time an oil-related outbreak threatened Indigenous communities

“Especially with a virus like COVID-19, where we're seeing folks that are in crowded conditions, if they're living close together and they're not able to quarantine properly, it just sets up a recipe for it spreading like wildfire,” said Katie Huffling, a certified nurse-midwife and the executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. The alliance is among dozens of environmental and health organizations concerned about pipeline worker and local community safety. Oil and gas companies need a COVID-19 plan for all aspects of their operations, Huffling explained, and they “need to be spot on with testing and making sure that their workers are being tested frequently.”

If the Keystone XL Pipeline leads to a rise in the number of cases on the tribal reservations in its path, it would not be the first time an oil-related outbreak threatened Indigenous communities. The Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley has been monitoring a number of man-camp outbreaks in Canada. In Northern Alberta, a coronavirus outbreak of two cases in April at the Kearl Oil Sands Project man camp was linked to over 100 cases across five provinces a month later; two Indigenous elders died from the disease.

Outbreaks among oil workers extend far beyond North America: The media has reported COVID-19 worker cases and deaths on close-quarter offshore platforms ranging from the North Sea and Norway down to Equatorial Guinea. In September, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex, reported the highest employee death toll of any company in the world. According to Pemex’s most recently released figures, 356 workers have died after contracting COVID-19 on the job. And in the early days of the pandemic in Mozambique, 18 of the country’s 28 cases were linked to a single gas project. 

So far, there appear to be no formal studies of COVID-19’s impact in man camps or surrounding communities. There have been at least six reported work-related oil and gas outbreaks in the U.S., including one at an offshore operation in the Gulf of Mexico — though the U.S. stopped reporting offshore outbreaks in April. And since the oil and gas industry isn’t required to publicly report worker cases, there’s no way to confirm how many outbreaks there actually are.

Tim Tarpley, vice president of government affairs at the Petroleum Equipment and Services Association, said he was initially worried about the industry’s COVID-19 testing and its employment of social distancing and quarantine measures for workers laboring in close quarters, such as offshore drilling platforms. But now, Tarpley, who helped acquire a permit for the first Keystone Pipeline, says that most operators have “gotten the hang of things.”

Oil pumpjacks on the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. During the Montana and South Dakota Keystone KL Pipeline water-crossing hearings in September 2020, many tribal community members complained that workers in man camps and at pump stations were not wearing masks.

Indigenous people and advocates are not convinced. During the Montana and South Dakota Keystone KL Pipeline water-crossing hearings in September, many tribal community members complained that workers in man camps and at pump stations were not wearing masks. They said they feared that the transient workers were contributing to the coronavirus surge.

The fact that many, if not most, oil and gas construction workers and operators are from out-of-state makes public health reporting difficult, especially when hundreds, even thousands, of transient workers arrive to fill temporary jobs. Because these workers are considered non-residents, any who test positive for COVID-19 will not be included in the county’s official daily count. Instead, their cases will be reported in their county of residence, which might be in another state. Across the board, this is how all states and counties report coronavirus cases.

“It's not totally accurate, then, of where cases are if people are traveling,” said Jenny Pollefson, nurse for Phillips County Public Health Department. “But I think for the vast majority of people, it's pretty accurate of where they're are at that point in time.” 

Pollefson gave an example: If someone travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada, and contracted a sexually transmitted disease there, that case would be counted in their home county and state. “This is how all states, how all counties report,” said Pollefson. “You only count cases in your county. That is whatever your jurisdiction is.” If Pollefson had treated the two pipeline workers who tested positive for COVID-19, she would have had to refer their case counts back to their counties of residence. They would not have been counted in Phillips County, even if they got sick and were treated there.

Change in reporting practices may arrive with the incoming Biden administration. In fact, the future of the pipeline itself is uncertain: In May, then-candidate Joseph Biden declared that he would rescind TC Energy’s Keystone XL Pipeline permit, though this action has yet to appear on his tribal nations or climate plans.

“Even if these workers aren't coming onto the reservation, they're still going to be interacting with communities that tribal members live and work in,” said Wesley Furlong of the Native American Rights Fund. “There's just a serious concern.”

Kalen Goodluck is a contributing editor at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter at @kalengoodluckLucy Meyer is a freelance journalist and a researcher at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Anjali Shrivastava is a data scientist and a researcher at the Human Rights Center, at the University of California, Berkeley. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Additional research by Katie Emanuel, Nicole Zhu, Gillian Rose, Danielle Cosmes and Pooja Doctor from the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.