Economics and Environment Fail in MB’s Port Nelson Proposal

Google Map capture of Port Nelson, MB and the Nelson River area showing stations on the Churchill rail line

The Manitoba Government has committed funding to a feasibility study for building a new deep water port in Port Nelson connecting Western Canada by rail to the abandoned port on the Hudson Bay.

The purpose of the port and rail line is to carry extracted resources, bitumen and potash, from Albert and Saskatchewan to a deep water port for international shipment.

Environmentally, the problems are multi-layered. Even if we overlook the need to reduce the extraction and burning of carbon and to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, there are fundamental problems with the plan:

  • Rail lines, as much as they are the most efficient method of transport for goods and people, require a considerable amount of real estate. Clearing another huge swath of wilderness through Manitoba does nothing to preserve already fragile ecosystems.
  • There are no resources in Northern Manitoba to handle bitumen spills in remote areas of muskeg and in the sensitive waters of Hudson Bay.

As the self-proclaimed proponents of the economy, our current government is very short-sighted.

  • We already have a port in Churchill, one that costs the federal government millions every year to maintain. Building a second port adds to ongoing infrastructure costs which makes no sense.
  • We already have a rail line to Churchill. A valuable transportation link that serves numerous communities. It is difficult terrain to run a railroad on, has been shut down many times due to infrastructure problems, and has considerable maintenance costs. Expanding that rail line in similar terrain, with similar infrastructure problems, makes no sense.
  • Believing that there is profit to be made in supporting the extraction and shipment of bitumen is short term thinking, at best. The world is rapidly recognizing the increasing costs of burning carbon. Investing in costly new infrastructure to support a carbon-based economy makes no sense.
  • The project carries risk of further degradation of water resources in Northern Manitoba, already compromised by decades of construction by Manitoba Hydro. These projects can have downsides for Indigenous communities who, in reaping temporary profit often end up sacrificing water and land resources.

If we must ship these products internationally, why are we not investing in upgrading and maintaining the existing rail line and port in Churchill? Doing so would create jobs, would bring vitality to Churchill, and create security for the communities that rely on the current rail line.

The government’s approach to the Sio Sands project in Southeastern Manitoba gives us some insights into their thinking. The chance for quick profit for corporate interests, combined with some promise of local jobs led them to simply ignore environmental concerns. They allowed Sio (then CanWhite) to drill test wells in the Vivian, MB area and to leave harmful silica sand lying around without any environmental license whatsoever.

When asked to help fund Engineering consultants for environmental groups to study the project, which is permissible under Manitoba law to guarantee balanced assessments, the government refused.

Only after considerable pressure from local residents did an appropriate environmental assessment get carried out. It still remains to be seen whether the government will heed those results.

At least the Sio Sands project has some claim to be forward-looking in terms of using the silica sand for the manufacturing of solar panels (although there is debate about the quality of the sand in this respect – much of it may be used for fracking).

The same cannot be said of the Port Nelson proposal. If there is profit to be had, which is questionable considering the infrastructure challenges, it is profit with a limited future. And yet, with far fewer local people to stand up and protect the environment here, the siren song of “profit” will be very tempting for a government that wears blinders when it comes to multi-generational thinking.

A responsible government would walk away from the very idea.

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