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Locals Worry About Coronavirus As Workers Arrive For Pipeline Jobs

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Construction has just started on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Native American tribes worry that workers coming to build it could bring the coronavirus. Kayla Desroches with Yellowstone Public Radio reports from Montana.

KAYLA DESROCHES, BYLINE: The pipeline crosses the border in Phillips County, Mont. County Commissioner Richard Dunbar says the pipeline would be the No. 1 source of property tax revenue there, where farming and ranching are the biggest businesses.

RICHARD DUNBAR: Just glad to see this project finally getting going and stuff and hope everything goes well for them. I mean, we're all trying to put up with this virus the best we can.

DESROCHES: TC Energy says it's bringing 100-some workers to its construction site, all from within the U.S. They're being housed in and around the nearby town of Glasgow, population roughly 3,000, in neighboring Valley County. The company says those workers go through both countywide and companywide protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including remaining in their housing for a 14-day quarantine period before starting work, self-reporting and conducting worker symptom checks on site.

Darrel Morehouse owner of D&G Sports & Western Wear in Glasgow says he's already sold some warmer clothes and steel-toed boots to newcomers.

DARREL MOREHOUSE: I feel comfortable that they're not bringing in anything in - I mean, not going to say they won't.

DESROCHES: Governor Steve Bullock issued a statewide stay-at-home order March 26 and, later, a 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state visitors. But Bullock says construction is essential work and can continue.

Nearby Native American tribes say they worry construction workers bring added coronavirus risk. The Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota had already filed a lawsuit against TC Energy before the coronavirus pandemic on the grounds that the pipeline violates their land rights. The tribe's attorney, Matthew Campbell, says both have since declared states of emergency for the virus.

MATTHEW CAMPBELL: Part of what we have submitted to the court is the concern about, you know, the gathering of these man camps with many people that come together and are working on the pipelines and that are near these tribal communities, which are at-risk communities in general anyway.

DESROCHES: A federal judge has scheduled a hearing on the case for April 16. The tribes requested a temporary restraining order on construction.

For NPR News, I'm Kayla Desroches in Billings, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.