Port of Churchill in Churchill, Manitoba.

Port of Churchill in the siege of winter. Steve Selden photo.

With the Port of Churchill processing over 600,000 tonnes of grain last year, the stability of the industry in Churchill has stabilized.

This has alleviated the need to a degree for Omnitrax Canada, owner of the port and Hudson Bay rail line, to continue to press for crude oil shipment by rail to Churchill and subsequent shipping through the port and Hudson Bay.

Environmental activists and farmers have praised Omnitrax for the decision to shelve shipping the oil at this time.

Eric Reder, The Wilderness Committee’s Manitoba campaign director, organized a year-long campaign including town hall meetings in Winnipeg, Thompson and Churchill and solicited over 4,000 protest letters mailed to the provincial and federal governments. The campaign was aimed at raising awareness thus facilitating pressure for the authorities to intervene and prevent Omnitrax from continuing the venture into transporting and shipping oil.

From the start, anyone familiar with the rail-line north from The Pas, knows of the calamity of grain – car derailments over the past decade. It seems irresponsible  for any company failing to address those issues first then research and evaluate an emergency recovery plan for derailment of oil cars as well as shipping such a commodity on the pristine Hudson Bay.

“What we were asking of Omnitrax was to find any other product to ship other than crude oil, because every other product than this specific one is easier to clean up,” Reder said. “People from around the world voiced their objection… we are all relieved.”

Churchill Democratic Member of Parliment (MP) Niki Ashton had a fervent opinion on the issue. “Omnitrax has a lead role to play and I hope they continue to do that and support and respect the livelihoods of northerners”, stated Ashton.

“People didn’t feel safe, not only for the environmental conditions but because the emergency measures aren’t in place at all. Northerners and First Nations leaders spoke out loud and clear… although Omnitrax may not acknowledge that overtly.”

The Wilderness Committee also presented strong anti-shipping points to engaged people and the government. For some of the remote communities along the rail line, this single railway is their only access to the outside world – and to each other. How can oil spill response equipment be transported into these communities, when the only rail line has an accident on it? How do you evacuate people when there is no road into these communities? How do we safeguard the population, the wildlife, and the lands and waters that provide for them, when the only access – the rail line – is blocked by a train derailment?

The Port of Churchill handled more than 600,000 tonnes of grain last year.

Port of Churchill with grain ships dockside. Port of Churchill photo.

Suspending crude-oil shipments to Churchill indefinitely was a logical business decision considering the record-breaking success of grain shipments in recent years.

“Having reviewed all of our opportunities and the things we’d like to do, we decided it wasn’t necessary or in our best interests to pursue shipping oil any further,” Stated Omnitrax Canada President Merv Tweed.  “I’m convinced that within the next couple of years we’ll hit the million-tonne mark.

Grain ship awaits docking at the port of Churchill.

Grain vessel awaits docking at the Port of Churchill. Steve Selden photo.

However, the grain market has fluctuated this last decade leading to the break-up of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly with the Port of Churchill. With this history  there’s no telling whether soaring grain shipment tonnage will permanently quell Omnitrax’s long term aspirations to ship crude oil through the Port of Churchill. News releases from the company have framed the current status as “suspended”.

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