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Oil opposition unabated

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THE Wilderness Committee isn't easing up in its efforts to derail a plan by Omnitrax to begin shipping oil through the northern Manitoba Port of Churchill.

The environmental group is holding as many as five town hall meetings over the next two weeks to discuss the controversial plan, which would see the U.S.-based railway ship oil by rail from Alberta and the north-central United States to Churchill, where it would be loaded onto tanker ships bound for oil refineries in Europe and the east coast of North America.

The committee has been one of the most vocal opponents of the plan, fearing a train derailment and oil spill could have a devastating impact on the North's fragile ecosystem and on Churchill's critical tourism industry.

And just because an Omnitrax test shipment planned for later this month has been postponed until next year is no reason for the committee to ease up on its efforts to block the plan, its Manitoba campaign director said Monday.

"Information (about the plan and its potential implications) isn't there for a lot of people," Eric Reder said in an interview. "And people want to come out and make sure their voices are heard and to help out with this.

Reder said dates have been confirmed for three town hall sessions, and tentative dates have been set for two others.

The first meeting is scheduled for tonight from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the University of Winnipeg's Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall. The other two confirmed sessions are set for Oct. 15 in Thompson and Oct. 18 in Churchill, and the two tentative sessions are for Oct. 14 on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas and Oct. 20 in Wabowden.

Omnitrax president and chief operating officer Darcy Brede said last week the trial shipment of 330,000 barrels of light sweet crude has been postponed until next July or August to allow for further consultations with First Nations and other communities.

But he said Omnitrax is still committed to diversifying into the handling of crude oil to help ensure the long-term viability of the port and the Hudson Bay Railway, which it also owns and operates. And regular shipments of oil could begin as early as next fall, he added.

Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said several weeks ago the Manitoba government has withdrawn its support of for the Omnitrax plan because it's too risky to the environment and residents of the North.

The change in position caught Omnitrax officials by surprise, and company officials met with Ashton on Monday to discuss the situation. Neither Brede nor Ashton could be reached later for comment on what transpired at the meeting.

Tuesday evening's town hall session will be co-hosted by the University of Winnipeg Students Association's Ecological People in Action and the Geography and Environmental Students Association. Guest speakers will include Reder and Douglas Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability and chief warden of Wapusk National Park.


-- Murray McNeill

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2013 B5

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