By The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government says the northern port town of Churchill will have enough propane to get it through the winter heating season, but the future of the community and its rail link to the south remains unclear.
Premier Brian Pallister says the province has ordered propane to last through to next June. The fuel is to be sent via ship by the end of September.
“The project has to start now to get the job done,” Pallister said at a news conference Friday. “We are committed to ensuring the safety and the security of Churchill in the wake of losing their land connection.”
Pallister said Stittco Energy — which operates in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories — will handle the transfer at a total cost of $6 million.
Churchill relies on the rail line for food and supplies, but flood damage took the tracks out of commission in May. Neither rail owner Omnitrax nor the Manitoba government has committed to pay for repairs.
Denver-based Omnitrax said earlier this week that the damage could be fixed in two months this fall at a cost of between $20 million and $60 million. But the company is unwilling to pay the tab. It said it has sunk $75 million into the line since 1997 and it can’t justify spending anymore.
Pallister said the province can’t make future plans about the line until important questions are answered by Ottawa.
“We’ll continue to urge the federal government to come forward with a plan, starting with their plan on the future of the port itself. The future of the rail line is inextricably linked to the future of the port.”
Dozens of people were put out of work last summer when Omnitrax shut down the port for the 2016 grain-shipping season.
Pallistser said a case can be made for having a port in Churchill and increased growth in the North — especially with climate change making shipping by sea easier.
“The facility there offers us an incredibly important asset for Canada, but it just can’t be invested in by a provincial government.”
Churchill Mayor Michael Spence said reaction to the rail shutdown has been disappointing.
“The loss of northern Manitoba’s lifeline is about more than propane. This is about the absence of leadership of federal and provincial elected representatives to this ongoing emergency,” he said in a statement Friday.
Spence said the community can’t understand why Pallister and his ministers have been unable to secure a meeting with their federal counterparts.
Manitoba has increased its subsidy for milk, infant formula and fresh fruits and vegetables that have to be flown into Churchill and announced a plan a few weeks ago to try to convert the community to electricity. The province owns about 70 per cent of the town’s homes.
The premier said the government has also given Stittco reassurance that its costs will be recovered and will act to prevent increases from being passed on to Churchill residents.
The $6 million includes the costs of renting special containers to store the propane, loading and shipping and equipment to unload the fuel at its destination.
When asked if the propane shipment signals that the government has given up on getting the line repaired quickly, Pallister said the province is erring on the side of caution.
“We are just making sure that should the rail line not be fixed by winter, we are not leaving the people of Churchill at incredible risk.”
Spence acknowledged that provincial and federal officials have met since Day 1 to ensure fuel, food and supply needs are being met. But if the rail line is repaired, those issues will be resolved, he pointed out.
“We understand that governments want the rail line owner to live up to their obligations. They need to force that issue or step in themselves.
“They can’t dither while a community and northern Manitobans’ livelihoods are at stake.”