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Teck Mining Company's zinc and lead smelting and refining complex is pictured in Trail, B.C., on Nov. 26, 2012.

The Canadian Press

Teck Resources Ltd. faces allegations of putting thousands of British Columbia miners at risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading the virus into the nearby communities by keeping open its massive coal operations.

Kelty Pelechytik, who lives near the company’s coal mines in the east Kootenay region of British Columbia, wrote a letter to Teck’s management and its board on April 5 alleging that conditions inside the mine have “likely enabled the spread of COVID-19 amongst its employees and contractors, their families, and the community at large.”

Citing testimonials from employees, she alleged that shortages of protective equipment, crowded commuter buses, packed site vehicles and “an absolute impossibility to self-distance because of the nature of the work,” are fostering an environment where the virus could spread.

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Ms. Pelechytik said she had previously tried to raise these concerns with senior management at Teck, including chief executive Don Lindsay, but has been ignored. She likened the continued operation of the mines to a “game of Russian roulette,” with the community’s health.

"Your company’s refusal to act on these numerous warnings may now directly lead to hospitalizations or death for people who live here," she wrote.

Two people who work at Teck’s coal operations in B.C. substantiated the concerns expressed in the letter. They told The Globe and Mail that despite renewed efforts from the company in recent weeks to minimize the health risk to employees, many remaining obstacles are insurmountable.

The workers feared repercussions from Teck if they spoke publicly, so The Globe is not identifying them.

After the publication of a highly critical report from The Narwhal that alleged the company wasn’t taking adequate precautions against the spread of COVID-19 into the community, Teck last week said it was temporarily cutting production by 50 per cent at both its coal mines in B.C. and copper operations in Alberta to reduce the risk of virus spread.

Teck is due to make a decision over the next few days on whether to ramp back up operations at both sites, keep the status quo or idle the mines entirely.

A number of provinces, including Quebec, recently decided mining is non-essential and ordered all operations to shut down. But other provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, categorized the sector as essential, allowing Teck to keep the mines open, as long as it takes appropriate precautions to minimize the risk to its work force.

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In an e-mailed statement, Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell wrote the company has “extensive health and safety protocols in place," and so far there have been no confirmed cases of the virus at its B.C. operations.

On April 7, the local health authority conducted a review of Teck’s COVID-19 prevention protocols and the results were “very positive,” Mr. Stannell said.

Teck’s focus is ensuring the health and safety of its employees and communities while “maintaining employment and economic activity to the extent possible," he added.

When operating at full capacity, Vancouver-based Teck employs about 4,000 people at its Fording River, Greenhills, Elkview and Line Creek mines. About half of staff remain onsite after the recent production curtailments.

The two B.C. workers who spoke anonymously said the company has made improvements, such as more intensive screening of employees before entering sites, stressing the importance of hand washing, increasing availability of sanitizer and more regular disinfecting of sites. But huge challenges remain.

Those include the extremely close quarters that miners work in, staff turnover as shifts change and the constant travel in and out of the sites, all of which could facilitate virus spread.

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One worker cited the impossibility of keeping ubiquitous metal surfaces that can harbour the virus clean, particularly in heavy traffic spots, such as door knobs on washrooms and stair railings in processing facilities.

In addition, both individuals said physical distancing was impossible in vast tracts of the mine sites, including in the narrow hallways inside many facilities, and the interiors of many mine vehicles that sometimes require more than one person to operate.

Teck’s work force at its B.C. coal mines are a mix of locals from towns such as Sparwood and Fernie, and others who travel from places such as Kelowna in the interior, or Lethbridge and Calgary in Alberta. Many of the distance workers rent rooms in the nearby towns. Those workers typically travel to the mines on Teck-operated coach buses. Once workers arrive onsite, smaller buses transport people to various work sites. All of this travel increases risk of virus exposure to the workers and nearby communities, the sources said.

Stephen Hunt, director of United Steelworkers union, which represents almost all of Teck’s B.C. work force, said some members are satisfied the company’s mines are safe, while others are worried. He said Teck has made decent strides to reduce the risk for employees, including staggering shift start times to reduce congestion at the mine site as well as removing some of the seating on buses to ensure people are sitting at least six feet apart. Despite these precautions, he’s still on edge.

“Are we terrified that someone might get COVID-19? Of course we are. Of course we are," he says.

“But we don’t have that say. Until government says you can’t go there, we’re obligated to go to work.”

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Mr. Hunt is advising any miner who doesn’t feel safe at Teck’s mines to stay at home, even if they risk repercussions, telling members to be “more afraid of COVID-19 than your employer.”

Teck has also faced push-back from the local medical community in B.C. about the continued operation of the coal mines.

On March 16, Johnny Peachell, an intensive care physician at the Kootenay Boundary Regional hospital wrote on Teck’s Facebook page that the facility was “already feeling the stress,” of the COVID-19 outbreak and would not be able to handle a surge of cases from Teck.

“You need to CLOSE down right now,” Dr. Peachell wrote.

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