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Omnitrax excluded from port promotion

Churchill shipper shocked at new development agency

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Omnitrax Canada owns the Port of Churchill but is not involved in the provincial government's proposed development agency for the port.

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Omnitrax Canada owns the Port of Churchill but is not involved in the provincial government's proposed development agency for the port. Photo Store

As promised in the recent speech from the throne, the province introduced legislation Thursday that would create a new development agency for the Port of Churchill.

But the company that actually owns the port and the rail line that links it to southern Manitoba was left out of the picture.

This might add further fuel to the simmering dispute between the province and Omnitrax Canada over the company's intention to start shipping crude oil through the port next year.

Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, was clearly not impressed with the lack of notice.

"There has been some discussion between all the parties about where we go next but this has caught us a little flat-footed for sure," said Tweed.

Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said the proposed new agency, called Churchill Arctic Port Canada Inc., would represent the evolution of federal and provincial government efforts to promote the port.

That is currently handled by the Churchill Gateway Development Corp., a tripartite organization sponsored by the federal and provincial governments and Omnitrax.

What's being proposed in the new legislation is a non-government agency governed by a board of directors that will determine how best to achieve the corporation's mandate.

The legislation came about following a 60-page federal-provincial task force report on the future of Churchill that came out earlier this year.

Ashton said the agency would promote new developments at the port, similar to the marketing function CentrePort Canada plays in the inland port development in Winnipeg.

But the tabling of the legislation is already a little off-putting to Omnitrax.

"It just seems odd as the sole owner of the port and the rail that we would not be more intimately involved," said Tweed.

The province and Omnitrax are on a collision course over the company's stated intention to start shipping oil next year because of what Ashton says are "significant" safety concerns.

At a presentation to the Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association of Manitoba earlier Thursday, Tweed said his company fully intends to launch a pilot project for light sweet crude oil in 2014 and is implementing a series of safety measures.

Tweed said the company will be investing close to $10 million to set up the pilot project with support from some oil company customers.

Ashton said all sorts of issues, including the potential changes in Arctic shipping because of global warming, mean there is significant potential for the port in a way not seen since its inception.

"But at the same time, there is a real need to do it right," said Ashton.

"If you had even one shipment of any commodity, especially hazardous goods, involved with any kind of major spill anywhere along the supply chain, it would set back the whole process."

Ashton said the province has a history of co-operating with Omnitrax and has contributed about $20 million to track upgrades over the past five years.

"But we do have significant environmental and safety concerns (about oil shipments to Churchill) and we are not in a position to support that," said Ashton.

"We have made that quite clear but that's not to say it's not a commodity that has been identified that could move through the port."

 

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 B7

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