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Omnitrax gets oil-spill ready

But critics dismiss emergency protocol

Omnitrax plans to begin shipping crude oil on its rail line to the Port of Churchill in August. Environmentalists and the Manitoba government are opposed.

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Omnitrax plans to begin shipping crude oil on its rail line to the Port of Churchill in August. Environmentalists and the Manitoba government are opposed.

It would take cleanup crews and their equipment three to five days to get to Churchill in the event of a significant oil spill in the port.

The first wave would be dispatched from as far away as Quebec City, and would encounter significant logistical challenges shipping in equipment by rail or air.

"We've done a fair amount of planning with respect to Churchill," said Jim Carson, president of the Eastern Canada Response Corp. "In reality, it's not a very easy place to get to."

ECRC is the private contractor, certified by Transport Canada and owned by several Canadian oil companies, that provides marine oil-spill cleanup services over a huge area, between the Rocky Mountains and the East Coast. It would be the firm called in to manage any big spill in Churchill, dispatching specially trained crews who follow preapproved response protocols. It has staff and equipment at the ready in several large ports, such as Montreal and Halifax, but is only now getting familiar with Churchill.

Officials with Omnitrax say they plan to have their own advanced spill prevention and containment plans and equipment in place that could trump the need for ECRC.

"We hope that, by the time the ECRC crews get there, they're not needed anymore," said Darcy Brede, president and COO of Omnitrax.

Omnitrax Canada plans to begin shipping light crude oil on its Hudson Bay Railway and through the Port of Churchill this August, a test run that could eventually result in 3.3 million barrels of oil shipped per year through the port. Environmental groups and some First Nations are opposed to the plan, as is the Manitoba government, especially following last year's deadly train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., which killed 47 people.

The province, though, has little power to stop crude shipments because railroads and marine shipping are federally regulated, and most federal approvals are already in place.

Omnitrax intended to launch its test run last fall but postponed it to do more consultation with northerners and to upgrade equipment at the port to pump oil directly from rail cars into tanker ships.

Brede said Omnitrax plans to set up oil booms around each tanker in case a spill occurs. The containment equipment will be in place even before oil is transferred from rail cars to ships. And, it will have vessels and cleanup equipment, such as suction pumps, ready to begin removing crude from the water in the event of a spill.

Omnitrax is working with a B.C. firm that has experience in the Arctic to create on-site prevention and emergency plans, train port staff and get equipment ready to be deployed when crude shipments start in August.

In the event of a big spill, ECRC would need to ship in large pieces of equipment, including pumps, skimmers, oil-containment booms and boats. Sending them by ship would take too long, so rail and air are the likely options, assuming the railway is operational.

Crews and equipment would likely come first from Quebec City, with additional support from Montreal, Sept-éles and other ECRC primary locations.

Containment and cleanup of any spills along the rail line would be trickier. Omnitrax plans to include a boxcar with containment material on every train carrying crude oil, along with a trained crew. That would allow for immediate containment, Brede said.

It could take two days for cleanup crews to arrive. They would begin excavating the contaminated permafrost and dispose of it at an site in Manitoba.

The Wilderness Committee's Eric Reder, whose group opposes oil shipments through northern Manitoba, said it's tough to clean oil spills in temperate climates accessible by roads, but a spill in the remote north, where permafrost makes access and containment difficult, is another ball game, as is a derailment or fire in one of the towns along the rail line.

"How do you get into any of the Bay line communities? By rail. So if there's an explosion on the track or an overturned rail car, how do you get in?" said Reder. "It just doesn't make any sense to put these communities at risk. This is one of the most dangerous and ecologically damaging products and it offers the Bay line communities and Churchill little economic benefit."

Should an explosion occur, Brede said Omnitrax hopes to use Manitoba Conservation fire crews who are up north during much of the shipping season.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Do you think Omnitrax is taking enough precautions to prevent oil spills? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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Updated on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 8:34 AM CST:
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