Winnipeg, MB — The Manitoba government says it is considering bringing in extra propane storage units and converting some homes to electricity to help people in isolated Churchill get through next winter.
The subarctic community on the shore of Hudson Bay lost its only land link to the outside world last month when rail service was cut off after flooding washed away a lot of rail bed along a 280-kilometre section of track leading to the town.
One key concern is heating fuel, which can be brought in by ship. But the ice-free shipping season is short, the winters are long, and the town has limited storage capacity for propane.
“There are lots of different (possible) solutions. None of them have been abandoned,” Lee Spencer, assistant deputy minister of emergency measures, said Thursday.
“We’re looking at bring up additional storage … by barge. It’s one of the options being considered. Manitoba Hydro is also looking at the capacity to switch (customers) over to electric, where possible, to reduce the demand for propane during this winter.”
Railway owner, Denver-based Omnitrax, has said it is likely to be next spring before the track can be fixed. The company has hired an outside engineering firm to assess the damage, list the needed repairs and come up with a price tag, Spencer said. That process that could take several weeks.
The company has also said it is likely to need government help to pay for repairs. Premier Brian Pallister has indicated he is willing to discuss that once the engineering report is issued.
Businesses and residents in Churchill — a town of 900 people that relies heavily on tourism — have already been hurt by the lack of rail service. Food, supplies and people must now be flown to the community at a much higher cost. The exceptions are fuel and some bulk items that can be brought by ship before the ice forms in early October.
John Hrominchuk, who owns a hotel and restaurant, said about one-third of his guests who booked for the summer have cancelled so far. He has cut staff and trimmed restaurant hours from full time to part time.
Prices are set to jump, he fears.
“Everything’s going up. It’s a buck a pound (in extra shipping costs).”
The North West Company said it has been absorbing the extra shipping costs for food and other items at its Churchill store, but plans to start passing on higher prices by Sunday.
The federal government is considering a request to extend its northern food subsidy program, normally available only to fly-in communities, to Churchill until the rail line is repaired.