The Hugh Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar was one of three built as part of the Columbia River Treaty. Photo: Contributed

Utility companies isolate workers to keep power on

BC Hydro and FortisBC ensure essential workers stay healthy during COVID-19 crisis

Local utility companies are making sure the lights stay on during the current pandemic.

FortisBC and BC Hydro have taken necessary steps to ensure essential workers stay healthy. Up to 10 FortisBC workers have been sequestered and put up at a Trail hotel in the wake of the COVID-19 virus, while BC Hydro also isolated its critical area workers during the pandemic.

“These essential FortisBC workers are all from our system control centre, which is a vital operation to deliver critical services, namely electricity, to our customers,” said FortisBC spokesperson, Diana Sorace. “We have worked out an agreement with their union for a scheduled rotation and these employees are required to stay at the local hotel during the time they are working their scheduled shifts.”

FortisBC says the move is to ensure essential workers don’t get infected with COVID-19, and disrupt operations of the electricity and natural gas supplier. In addition, they have reopened their Warfield control room so that operators from Greater Trail don’t have to travel to their new facility in Castlegar.

“None of these employees have COVID-19,” said Sorace. “Our employees agreed to follow this protocol and it now forms part of their employment agreement (collective agreement) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with support of their union.”

Related read: FortisBC offers 90-day bill deferrals

BC Hydro also plays a critical role in delivering safe and reliable power to the West Kootenay, and has taken precautionry measures in all their facilities to help prevent cases of COVID-19.

“This included isolating our critical areas, such as our control centre,” said BC Hydro spokesperson, Mary Anne Coules. “Employees that are able to conduct work from home are doing so, and those that must remain in the office are practicing social distancing.”

Similar precautions were taken by electric and nuclear power companies in the United States. The New York Power Authority began isolating its critical control room and security staff onsite at its major power plants and transmission control centres more than three weeks ago. At one power station, essential workers brought their RVs and Campers to self-isolate and camp out, while continuing to work.

Both BC Hydro and FortisBC has curtailed their non-essential work force, and those essential employees are following the guidelines set out by the health authority and federal and provincial governments.

“At our local facilities, we have ceased all non-critical work, and work that is deemed critical is done with either the use of crew-pods of five employees or less, or maintaining a physical distance of two metres,” said the BC Hydro spokesperson. “At Duncan Dam and the Hugh L. Keenleyside Dam, our dam caretakers are working reduced hours to ensure that there is only one caretaker present at any given time.”

Related read: BC Hydro implements three month bill holiday for those affected by COVID-19

According to FortisBC, employees with extenuating circumstances can take a pass on the sequestration, or return home to their families during their days off, others may be on lockdown until the end of the month.

“Natural gas and electric service are critical to homes across the province as well as the places and services that British Columbians depend on like hospitals, supermarkets and food delivery,” added Sorace. “While we have postponed some projects, as a critical infrastructure service, some work, such as the work being done in the system control centre, is crucial for the ongoing reliable and safe delivery of energy to our customers.”

Last week, BC Hydro announced that it was offering a three-month bill credit for residential customers and small businesses who have lost work as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. In addition, large industrial users of electricity can defer up to half of their bills for a three-month period, with applications open until June 30 for business relief.

On Apr. 7, FortisBC announced that it will defer bill payments until July 1, and ask customers to pay back outstanding balances within a year. They also waved their late payment fees and suspended all potential disconnections regardless of amount owed. Small businesses that have closed will receive bill credits to offset charges that they’ve incurred since closing down. Those that are still operating will not be issued bill credits but are eligible for the 90-day payment deferral.

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