Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Churchill copes with continent's priciest gas

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Churchill, the self-proclaimed polar bear capital, has a new distinction -- the highest gasoline prices in North America.

A recent 34-cent hike pushed prices at the only gas station in town to $2.30 per litre this week -- and residents are fuming.

A handwritten notice pointed the finger at OmniTRAX Canada, the American-owned rail company that is the town's only fuel supplier.

The president of the Canadian division of OmniTRAX noted the prices soared overnight, but Brad Chase said it's not because OmniTRAX hiked prices.

"Our price has not changed any more than three per cent since July or August, in total," Chase said from Winnipeg. "You'll have talk to the retailer. It's up to the retailer to explain," he said.

"It's unfortunate the story is the way it is."

The gas station, De Meulles Auto, lowered its price late Tuesday afternoon by nearly 15 cents, to $2.17 a litre. But it remains the highest price on the continent, meaning it costs more to drive a vehicle in this northern tourist town than anywhere else in North America, said station owner Dale de Meulles.

It's worth noting Churchill's price is about $1 per litre higher than in Gillam, Manitoba's other northern supply centre, he said.

The gas station owner insisted he's only passing on what he paid for fuel.

Tuesday's drop in price came after "I talked to some bigwigs at OmniTRAX," he said.

There's no incentive for him to hike prices because he's selling his business to new owners, the gas station owner said.

Churchill residents, meanwhile, say the price hike puts a damper on tourism during the profitable fall season for the polar bear migration. High prices scare off tourists, residents said.

"It's broken the $2-a-litre mark. The locals are saying enough is enough," declared Churchill resident Lance Duncan. He said residents don't blame the gas station owner. They blame OmniTRAX.

"I understand it costs them money to operate but what they're charging is exorbitant rates. When you own the company that determines the cost, you know they're putting more money in their pockets," Duncan said. It cost him $150 to fuel up his Toyota Tundra truck Tuesday.

Worse, the price hike could indirectly pose a threat to people, if walking instead of driving means dodging hungry polar bears on foot.

Churchill is one of the few places so accustomed to polar bears, the province maintains a polar bear hotline there. The town's two Conservation officers couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday because they were both out on polar bear calls. Usually, bears stay on the outskirts while waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they can hunt on the ice.

"We have polar bears and we have Conservation officers and they're good," said Churchill resident Samantha Hampton. Still, "You won't catch me walking around the streets."

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 24, 2012 A5

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