Manitoba Hydro claims the "illegal blockade" at the Keeyask megaproject is costing the utility $1.7 million a day, as the construction site moves to barebones staff.
The chiefs blockading entry at three points around the megaproject say they don’t want to endanger anyone’s safety, including those left at the plant.
On Monday, a Winnipeg judge issued an injunction, allowing the RCMP to remove blockades that four First Nations started a week ago, over fears a massive shift change would introduce COVID-19 to northern Manitoba.
The injunction gives Mounties until May 28 to remove the blockade, but RCMP say they only plan to respond if safety is put at risk. Hydro has moved some staff into the plant from the Gillam airport via helicopter.
"By forcing the decision to go into a care and maintenance mode, the continuing blockade is costing the Keeyask Project approximately $1.7 million per day, plus a one-time cost of up to $50 million for demobilizing and remobilization as well as contractor claims," reads an internal memo Hydro sent to its employees Friday morning.
"These costs will be borne by Manitoba Hydro’s customers."
Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen confirmed the utility pared down staff late Thursday "due to the illegal blockade," and that roughly 100 staff are staying on to ensure safe maintenance of the construction site.
Owen added that Keeyask was proceeding ahead of schedule prior to the blockade.
The internal memo also claims the blockades are preventing food from reaching the site. That came as news to those leading the protests, who said they could negotiate with Hydro if the utility asked to bring in needed supplies.
"The blockaders (…) are also holding back essential shipments of food and other supplies and services," Dave Bowen claimed in the internal memo Friday.
"Without perishable foods like bread and milk, or the ability to remove accumulating food waste that is already attracting bears into the camp, the situation is no longer safe."
The memo said Hydro had "no clear timeline from the RCMP for when they will move to permit safe passage of people, food or other critical supplies."
Nathan Neckoway, a Tataskweyak band councillor who helped organize the blockade, argued that the memo illustrates Hydro’s spotty communication.
"They can’t just assume that we’re not going to work with them; they got to talk to us," said Neckoway.
"They never involved us in the process; that’s what started us having to make our stand. Hydro does not acknowledge us as partners."
Hydro offered Wednesday night to have CEO Jay Grewal speak with chiefs by teleconference. The chiefs were discussing the proposal Friday afternoon, but some want an in-person meeting at the blockade site.
In a statement, Hydro said it’s been in touch with the four First Nations about pandemic planning since mid-March. The chiefs don’t dispute that, but say they weren’t fully consulted on the plan to bring in as many as 1,200 staff, including up to 200 from outside Manitoba.
Hydro only shared that plan after the province had approved it, and then extended the required quarantine period, based on chiefs’ feedback.
Updated on Friday, May 22, 2020 at 9:11 PM CDT: Fixes typo.