Farmers dismayed over Port of Churchill closure

“This is a major blow to us, especially when there appears to be an exceptionally large crop coming.” – KAP President Dan Mazier.   Photo: File/Shannon VanRaes

Manitoba’s largest general farm organization Keystone Agricultural Producers is calling on the federal government to keep the Port of Churchill operating until the end of the 2016 shipping season and beyond.

Workers at the Port of Churchill were told Monday there would be no grain shipments going through the port this season, leaving approximately 10 per cent of Churchill residents out of work.

“This is a major blow to us, especially when there appears to be an exceptionally large crop coming,” said KAP President Dan Mazier. “The last time we had a large crop, grain movement through the port was up 50 per cent over the previous year.

“We’ve had so many issues shipping our grain east and west to port, and this was an excellent option. If ever there was a case for government intervention, this is it.”

Mazier says he is very surprised because OmniTrax, the port’s owner, indicated very recently that the coming season was looking good.

“And now the company is saying there isn’t enough grain coming in — something doesn’t add up,” he said.

Mazier is also asking the federal government to come up with a plan that will ensure the port continues to operate.

“We don’t want to lose this facility permanently, and the longer it stays shut, the more possible that scenario becomes,” he said.

The Churchill facility was owned by the federal government until the mid-90s, when it was sold to OmniTrax.

OmniTrax, the Denver-based company running the port, gave no inclination of the closure, Boon said, adding he was in communications with officials no more than a few weeks ago.

“It was business-as-usual; they had some potential customers that were going to utilize the port and were working toward shipments, so we were not expecting this whatsoever,” Boon said.

The port saw drastically lower tonnage last year, 184,000 tonnes of grain compared to the 500,000 to 700,000 tonnes expected, said Boon. When the association brought up concerns for the 2016 shipping season, he said OmniTrax responded positively, telling them this season would be better.

“They assured us they had some new customers come forward and were looking at some good shipments, but apparently that’s not so,” said Boon.

As of August 8, the port will be completely shut down and all employees terminated, right at the start of shipping season through Churchill, Boon said. “(There are) loaded rail cars destined for Churchill and they’re sitting on the side, loaded, with nowhere to go,” Boon said. “They’ve cancelled everything.”

Boon said he has been in contact with provincial and federal government officials, hoping a combined effort can recover some of the shipping season. “I’m not sure what (OmniTrax’s) thought process is…but there are huge implications here, not only for Churchill but the whole supply chain,” Boon said.

The Port of Churchill is Canada’s only Arctic port, raising concerns for the province of Manitoba as well, Boon said.

When reached on Tuesday, OmniTrax spokesperson Ron Margulis would not comment on the layoffs, but said the company would be releasing more information in the near future.

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