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Effort to derail oil plan heats up

Town halls, letter-writing campaign in works

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The Port of Churchill.

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The Port of Churchill.

A national environmental group is ramping up its efforts to block a controversial plan to ship crude oil through the northern Manitoba Port of Churchill.

The Wilderness Committee plans to hold town hall meetings in Winnipeg, Thompson and Churchill over the next five weeks to let Manitobans hear from experts why it's too risky to let Omnitrax Canada haul oil by rail to Churchill and then ship it out in tankers through Hudson Bay.

It also has a letter-writing campaign underway urging concerned citizens to send a message to the Manitoba government expressing their opposition to the plan.

The committee argues Omnitrax's rail line passes through remote areas and sensitive wildlife habitat, and an oil spill would be disastrous and difficult to clean up. Spokesman Eric Reder said it has received more than 220 responses since it sent an email last Thursday to its members informing them of the letter-writing campaign, which is being run through its website:

"These are very high numbers for any letter-writing campaign we've run," he said. "We usually don't get more than a few hundred responses... after several weeks."

Winnipeg-based Omnitrax said earlier this month it hopes to ship about 12.5 million litres of light sweet crude oil per year as part of its ongoing efforts to boost the volume of goods passing through the port and to ensure its long-term viability.

They said Omnitrax is talking to several Alberta oil companies that might be interested in using the port to ship oil to refineries in Atlantic Canada and Europe. It hopes to do a test run this October involving a 1.25-million-litre tanker ship.

Omnitrax spokesman Mike Ogborn said this week those talks are continuing.

A spokeswoman for Canada's largest publicly traded oil company -- Suncor Energy Inc. -- said Tuesday it has no plans to ship oil through Churchill.

"It's just not a fit for us at this time," she said. But for competitive reasons, she declined to say if Suncor had discussed the option with Omnitrax.

The Omnitrax proposal has drawn mixed reactions from northern Manitoba residents, businesses and municipal officials. Churchill resident and tour-company worker Alex deVries-Magnifico and hotel operator Dick Hunter are vehemently opposed to the plan because of concerns about the risk of an oil spill and the damage that would do to the environment and to Churchill's tourism industry.

DeVries-Magnifico said all but two or three of the approximately 70 people who attended an Aug. 13 meeting in Churchill were opposed to the plan.

Hunter, who owns the Iceberg Inn in Churchill, also said a spill in the port would contaminate all of Hudson Bay because of the way the water circulates around the bay.

"We definitely have some very big concerns," the former volunteer fire chief added.

However, Churchill Mayor Mike Spence has expressed cautious support for the plan, saying Omnitrax has been safely handling gasoline and diesel-fuel shipments for more than a decade. 

While Spence is keen to find new products to diversify the Port of Churchill's business -- which currently relies mainly on grain shipping -- he would want to ensure the Omnitrax plan poses no risk to the environment and meets all regulatory requirements for the safe handling of petroleum products, he said.

The Pas Mayor Al McLaughlan and Thompson city councillor Penny Byers also said after Omnitrax officials explained the precautions it would be taking, including having an emergency response unit and spill-containment equipment on every oil train, most people in their communities seemed to be in favour of the plan.

"After listening to everything that was said... this is without a doubt a good-news story for Thompson and the region," Byers said, adding it could lead to new jobs and to additional sales for local suppliers.

Ogborn said Omnitrax's existing procedures for transporting petroleum products already meet or exceed Transport Canada safety standards.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2013 A6


Updated on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 2:53 PM CDT: Clarified Churchill mayor's statement.

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