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Priest Rapids workers ‘sequestered’ at dam as COVID numbers rise locally

Staff Writer | December 14, 2020 1:00 AM

PRIEST RAPIDS DAM — Control room operators and maintenance workers at Priest Rapids Dam are being asked to stay on the site seven days at a time.

During sequestration, a crew of nine stay at the dam for a week while working before swapping with a crew that was quarantined at home those days. Crews are screened onsite.

Chuck Allen, Grant County PUD public affairs supervisor, said the “sequestration” applies to workers who are considered essential to the dam’s operation.

“What we call critical mission employees,” Allen said, referring to people who monitor and maintain the generators, turbines and other systems, along with the people who staff the control room.

Sequestration started Dec. 2. Allen said PUD officials don’t know when it will end for the dam on the Columbia River, almost eight miles south of Mattawa.

There are some facilities where workers can stay, and meals are delivered.

“We’re very grateful to them (the employees) for what they’re doing,” he said.

The decision was prompted by the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Grant County, Allen said, and some workers at Priest Rapids were exposed to people who tested positive for coronavirus.

There wasn’t and isn’t a coronavirus outbreak at Priest Rapids, Allen said.

“Primarily, it’s a response to what we’re seeing throughout the county,” he said.

Administrators “came to the decision the best thing to do would be to go into sequestration,” Allen said.

“It’s a step we’re taking out of an abundance of caution. Because we know how important it is.”

Utility district administrators worked with the union representing employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to come up with a schedule.

Each dam is different, and the training required to operate, monitor and maintain them is different for each facility, he said. That would make it difficult to find replacements if current workers were required to quarantine.

“With Wanapum Dam, we are not in sequestration,” Allen said.

But all elective maintenance and other projects have been deferred and people who normally work at Wanapum have been shifted to other locations. Only people who are considered critical to its operation are allowed inside the facility.

“At Wanapum Dam, workers are allowed to go home at the end of the day,” Allen said, but they are “being asked to do as much as they can to isolate at home.”