The Port of Churchill sale expected to go through soon. Port of Churchill photo.
Current Port of Churchill owners OmniTrax Canada and a group of northern Manitoba First Nations, known as the Missinippi Rail Consortium, have finally agreed to seal the deal that will hopefully get the facility running again.
This agreement will allow the First Nations Consortium to begin lining up customers and vendors ahead of the 2017 grain season so to insure a smooth transition in bringing the port back up to par.
In a press release statement from omnitrax the company stated, “This step was taken after a year of due diligence and the signal from the consortium that it intends to move forward,” Omnitax has owned and operated the port and rail line since 1997.
“We are grateful that OmniTrax Canada believes in our process and our people and is willing to get started now,” said Chief Arlen Dumas of the Mathias Colomb First Nation, which has led the consortium.
“Ensuring First Nations ownership in these assets is a vital part of ensuring long-term viability in the north. Now we need the government of Canada to complete their review so that this process can be concluded as soon as possible.”
“It is a pleasure working with Chief Dumas. The chief’s leadership, consideration and thoughtfulness have allowed us to ensure a great home for these assets with the Manitoba northern First Nations,” said Merv Tweed, OmniTRAX Canada president.
“He has taken bold steps to prove his commitment to the transaction and we are eager to see it come to fruition in the coming months.”
This past July OmniTrax announced that the port was closing much to the surprise of Churchill townspeople and government officials. Layoff notices followed almost immediately to the roughly one in 10 Churchill residents employed at the port and the accusations began to fly. Municipal leaders, politicians and organizations representing agricultural producers all spoke out against the shut down and called for the reopening of the port. It didn’t happen but perhaps the local ownership will prove to be the answer to the problem.
The Port of Churchill, MB. Photo: Steve Selden
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.”
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?
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 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”.