Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No oil to Port of Churchill a relief for many

Province hopes Omnitrax will consult over shipping

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The Port of Churchill handled more than 600,000 tonnes of grain last year.

OMNITRAX PHOTO Enlarge Image

The Port of Churchill handled more than 600,000 tonnes of grain last year.

Environmental activists, grain farmers and at least one Manitoba MP applauded the decision by Omnitrax Canada that it would not immediately pursue shipping crude oil via rail to the Port of Churchill.

For the Wilderness Committee's Manitoba campaign director, Eric Reder, a year's worth of protesting felt like it finally paid off.

The Wilderness Committee, the largest environmental research group in Canada with 60,000 members, held town hall meetings in Winnipeg, Thompson and Churchill and mailed at least 4,000 letters to the provincial and federal governments since last August urging them to step in and stop Omnitrax's risky rail procedures.

"What we were asking of Omnitrax was to find any other product other than crude oil (to ship), because every other product other than this specific one is easier to clean up," Reder said. "People from around the world voiced their objection... we are all relieved."

The possibility of an oil spill happening on the rickety Hudson Bay Railway was all too real after a train derailed Monday while headed to the Port of Churchill with grain shipments. The environmental risks of shipping crude oil up north proved greater than the possible economic rewards for northerners, said Churchill MP Niki Ashton.

'Omnitrax has a lead role to play and I hope they continue to do that and support and respect the livelihoods of northerners' -- Niki Ashton

"People didn't feel safe, not only for the environmental conditions but because the emergency measures aren't in place at all," said Ashton. "Northerners and First Nations leaders spoke out loud and clear... although Omnitrax may not acknowledge that overtly."

Omnitrax Canada's president, Merv Tweed, said suspending crude-oil shipments to Churchill indefinitely was a viable business option considering the record-breaking success of grain shipments as of late. In 2013, the Port of Churchill handled more than 600,000 tonnes of grain, while in 2012, the port handled more than 430,000 tonnes.

"Having reviewed all of our opportunities and the things we'd like to do, we decided it wasn't necessary or in our best interests to pursue this (oil shipments) any further," Tweed said in an interview Thursday.

"I'm convinced that within the next couple of years we'll hit the million-tonne mark," he added.

Tweed said Omnitrax also consulted with First Nations, Métis and the provincial government about their choice.

Omnitrax's oil-shipping suspension proved good news for Manitoba farmers whose grain products might now get to the Port of Churchill more quickly, said Doug Chorney, president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers.

Chorney said there is enough room on the railway headed north to ship all types of commodities, though oil often seems to take priority.

"There's been talk of oil shipments causing grain to be delayed; that they were moving oil in priority over grain," he said. "Everywhere I looked, even when I got stopped in traffic, there was clearly a great increase in the amount of (oil) tankers being used in lieu of pipelines that haven't been built yet."

"If we utilize the capacity of our rail system efficiently, then there should be room for anything," he added. Diversifying western Canadian grain shipping ports to more prominently include Churchill alongside big ports in Vancouver and Thunder Bay is a great competitive business strategy, said Chorney.

In 2012, the federal government also announced the Churchill Port Utilisation Program, a five-year funding commitment that is allotted up to $25 million per year to give incentives to companies that ship through Churchill. Each tonne of grain shipped through the Churchill port nets its company $9.20. Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz confirmed in an email Friday the Port Utilisation program's funding has been fully tapped this year.

Still, there's no telling whether maximized grain shipments will permanently curb Omnitrax's desire to ship crude oil through Churchill. Their news release from Friday simply stated plans will be suspended "for the foreseeable future."

Ashton said she hopes to see a more definite consulting commitment from Omnitrax about what and where they choose to ship.

"Omnitrax has a lead role to play, and I hope they continue to do that and support and respect the livelihoods of northerners."

jessica.botelho-urbanski@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 B6

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