Some relief is here for Churchillians as the Government of Canada has approved a .43 cent per liter subsidy for fuel supplied by the Churchill Marine Tank Farm. Although there is some resentment still towards Omnitrax, the current owner of the tank farm, residents feel fortunate to have the discounted fuel. Churchill currently has the highest price per lite/gallon of fuel in North America!
The parent company of Hudson Bay Railway Company (HBRC), US-based Omnitrax, is off the hook for any damages lost in a pending lawsuit. HBRC will be solely responsible to the federal government if they are found liable for not repairing the washed out rail-line that links Churchill with the south of Manitoba. In May 2017 the tracks were washed away in nearly 20 locations rendering the stretch of tracks useless until millions of dollars are allocated for repair.
Omnitrax’s claim that HBRC is a separate entity has been upheld and thus the Federal Government of Canada has removed its name from the lawsuit.
Soon after two late spring blizzards began to melt, the tracks suffered severe damage in multiple locations. Omnitrax, based in Denver, Colorado, refused to spend an assessed $60 million for repairs. The company claimed economic hardship with regards to the project and was faced with the federal government threatening to sue after the 30-day start deadline elapsed.
The government filed a lawsuit this past November naming Omnitrax and HBRC as defendants. Under a 2008 agreement, Transport Canada indicated that Omnitrax was responsible for keeping the railway running through 2029. As a result, the lawsuit is seeking to recoup $18 million that was an original part of the terms to operate the port and rail line. However, the company has claimed the damages resulted from unforeseeable circumstances or “act of God” thus releasing them from their obligation to repair under their contract with the government.
Omnitrax counsel Jamie Kagan acknowledged that the Attorney General of Canada and Omnitrax have agreed to remove the parent company’s name from the lawsuit and relieve them from any judgment for damages. Any fault and levy of damages will now only be filed against HBRC.
“Our view has always been that this is a political action mainly brought for the purposes of PR and not for a legal remedy, and it appears that the Government of Canada, when pushed, ultimately agreed and has withdrawn the allegations against Omnitrax Inc.,” Kagan said in an interview after the hearing.
“As the private owner of the line, Hudson Bay Railway Company -which also conducts business under the name OmniTRAX Canada- had the obligation to repair the rail line when it was damaged,” a spokesperson for Transport Canada said in an emailed statement.
Churchill residents and business people have been faced with increasing costs for everyday supplies as most now are transported by air. Government subsidies have deferred costs to some extent though some residents have been forced to relocate to Winnipeg or other locations as a result.
Omnitrax is still trying to work out a purchase and sale agreement with a group comprised of northern Manitoba First Nations. Those talks have stalled since the disaster last spring.
A northern delegation comprised of representatives from the Town of Churchill and The Pas, City of Thompson, Hudson Bay Route Association, and the War Lake First Nation have met with provincial and federal governments to try to sort out the recent Port of Churchill closure by american based owner Omnitrax. The company closed the port and issued two – week lay – off notices on July 25th of this year.
No grain has been shipped through the Port of Churchill prior to the shut – down in what Churchill Mayor Spence has characterized a “bumper -crop year”. The “unforseen” circumstances that Omnitrax is siting as reason for closure have still not been disclosed by the company that purchased the facility in 1993 from the Government of Canada which was at the time divesting itself from numerous crown corporations. The current closure affects nearly 200 paid positions all along the Bayline.
Speaking for the northern delegation, Mayor Spence stated “this is an emergency situation for our community, our region and indeed our country. We’ve been told by farmers that there is a bumper crop and as an export country we can’t be shutting down ports if we are able to keep people employed and grow our economy”.
The delegation is in agreement that the Government of Canada at national and regional levels should take responsibility to insure that the Port of Churchill is of national interest. In this light all involved feel the Port of Churchill needs to be reopened and continue to function as a part of Canada’s national infrastructure. This new delegation has pledged to continue to diligently work with the branches of government to find a long term solution for keeping the port operations running.
Michael Constant, Chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, reinforced the message by Mayor Mike Spence of Churchill stating “we have all come together to find a workable long term solution and we are prepared to advance a northern regional ownership model that we feel is the best approach going forward”.
Last December a group of Manitoba First Nations purportedly was in the process of finalizing an agreement to purchase the Port of Churchill though that news has simmered somewhat as no definitive sale has been finalized.
The Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway are being put up for sale by Denver based Omnitrax owned by the Broe Group. Both the Hudson Bay line from the Pas to Churchill and the port are being sold together as a package deal.
Prior to 1997 the Government of Canada owned the Port but then divested many of their crown holdings and sold the facility to US based Omnitrax. Because the Canadian National Railway had also been privatized, the line between Churchill and the Pas was also sold to the company.
While the sale announcement has been kept low key the news is now out and potential suitors have yet to come forward.
After anticipating a surge in shipping from the port, years of average growth and a decline this year in the grain shipping out of Churchill have lead management to search for new product avenues. Recent attempts to initiate oil shipments from the sub – Arctic port were quashed by public outcry amid fears of potential environmental destruction in the case of a spill. Protesters fear an oil spill in the Hudson Bay would cause irreversible damage to the fragile northern ecosystem that, among other wildlife, is home to the mighty polar bear.
It will be very interesting to see who steps forward as a potential buyer and what plans are put forth for the port and the Hudson Bay Line. The challenge is huge.
“Obviously, after a tough year in the industry we’ve looked at a lot of things and concluded that either the railway and the port needs more support or perhaps another owner or operator could take it on and see what they could do,” say Merv Tweed, president of OmniTrax Canada. “It is obviously a big challenge, but we feel we’ve put the port and railroad in decent shape over the last couple of years. We’ve brought in a lot of efficiencies, but it is a challenge.”