The fragile Hudson Bay lowlands would be destroyed by an oil spill if a controversial plan to run bitumen by rail to Churchill goes through, an environmental audience heard Tuesday night.
"Oil and polar bears don’t mix.," Doug Clark, one of Canada’s experts on polar bears and the North, told dozens of audience members.
"Every once in a while something comes along that’s such a manifestly bad idea that you don’t need to analyze it," said Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability and chief warden of Wapusk National Park.
He said the Omnitrax rail line from Winnipeg to Churchill experiences five to six derailments every year.
The Keewatin Tribal Council, which has come out in opposition to the oil by rail plan, logged 63 derailments between 2003-2012, the audience heard.
Tuesday night’s event was one of five town halls the Wilderness Committee will hold in a bid to derail Omnitrax’s plan to run oil by rail to the northern Manitoba port of Churchill.
One woman, who left early said the she gets the message and it couldn’t be bleaker. " It’s depressing. Everything he says is true," said the woman who gave her name as Georgina and said she’s aware of the environmental risk as a member of Manitoba’s Green party. "We hope reason will prevail."
The environmental group is pushing ahead with the event even though the American owned rail company a test shipment that had been planned for this fall.
The plan 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. Figures released by the rail line indicates it intends fo ship 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil a year on the northern line.
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.
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 this week.
And last night, Eric Reder used a family story to underpin the environmental threat. His father, an pensioned off railway man who regularly rides the Omnitrax to his beloved bird watching perch in Churchill. "He tells me about the train rocking back and forth," said Reder.
He later added, "No matter how much (fill) they put into it, it’s on melting permafrost. There’s nothing we can do to make that rail line more stable."
The rail line passed on the western edge of the largest denning grounds for polar bears in the world. An oil spill was described as catastrophic.
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.
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.
While not specifying Omnitrax by name, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader Derek Nepinak made it clear at an Idle No More rally Monday that no energy project can go ahead without First Nation’s support.
"You look at all the great wealth that’s been extracted over the last 100 years, that have enriched a very few people, while reserves continue to suffer in great poverty. What we have to do is push back. We have the power as Indigenous people to make the final determination on any energy project. Its up to us to maintain the water and the ecosystem. We have the final say," Nepinak said.
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. That position hasn’t changed, a cabinet spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Tuesday evening’s town hall session was co-hosted by the University of Winnipeg Students Association’s Ecological People in Action and the Geography and Environmental Students Association.