Mayor fears deepwater port flip flop

“We never got a reply, but unfortunately, we have it in the newspaper.”



The federal Conservative government appears to be backing off on an election promise to build a deepwater port in Nunavut – something that does not please Iqaluit’s mayor, Elisapee Sheutiapik.

”It’s very disappointing news,” Sheutiapik said at a council meeting Tuesday last week, during a member’s statement on the matter.

Sheutiapik referred to a Feb. 3 article published in the Ottawa Citizen that quotes an internal defence department document, the revised Canada First Defence Strategy.

The new strategy appears to scale back the election promise of building an Arctic sea port, along with three armed icebreakers that would patrol Canadian Arctic waters.

Instead, it calls for the construction of a refuelling and berthing site for navy ships in the Arctic, as a “forward operating location,” rather than a multi-use, civilian-military seaport.

The strategy also calls for building six Arctic patrol vessels, but these ships would not be icebreakers, and would be unable to travel through areas with heavy sea ice.

As well, the strategy calls for as many as 1,000 reserve troops to be trained in the Arctic each year – in line with an election promise to build a military training centre somewhere in Nunavut, likely Resolute Bay.

Sheutiapik said the city has sent letters to Gordon O’Connor, the minister of defence, asking for an update on the promise made by the Conservatives before the last federal election in January 2006 that, if elected, they would build a sea port in Iqaluit.

“We never got a reply, but unfortunately, we have it in the newspaper,” Sheutiapik said.

For O’Connor’s part, he’s said recently that he plans to announce the military’s Arctic strategy some time later this year.

Last summer, O’Connor said during a visit to Iqaluit he would announce the location of a joint military-civilian seaport in Nunavut by the end of 2006.

The promise of a sea port was greeted as an economic boon for Iqaluit, where presently, cargo is unloaded through the tedious, expensive and sometimes dangerous process of transferring goods from cargo vessels to barges, which are landed on the beach, where the cargo is picked up by forklift.

Last fall one forklift operator died during an accident while unloading cargo from a beached barge.

It’s estimated that cargo could be unloaded twice as fast with a port, according to a study commissioned by the City of Iqaluit. That would save shipping companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, which could be passed along to residents.

If a warehouse were built in Iqaluit, shipped goods could then be flown around the Baffin at a discounted cost, and these savings would spread to surrounding communities as well.

But benefits that come with a port go far beyond faster unloading times.

Oil spills would also become less likely. Currently a floating pipeline is used, which makes preparing for spills and leaks impossible. That would be replaced with a wharf plugged directly into the city’s petroleum pipes.

Cruise ships could visit town safely, boosting the number of tourists. That means more business for restaurants and hotels, and a bigger market for local arts and crafts. Currently, many cruise ships avoid Iqaluit because unloading passengers by small boat and refueling are both risky operations.

Fishing vessels could also unload their catch of shrimp and turbot in Iqaluit, rather than make a 12-day return voyage to Newfoundland, as they do now. Resupplying in Iqaluit would only take three of four days, leaving far more time to fish.

The city’s report pegged the cost of building a port as low as $49 million. That’s far less than previous estimates, which range from $97 million to as much as $250 million.

When the city’s port plan was unveiled during the summer of 2005, city officials were optimistic enough to say a port could be built by October 2009, if there was the political will.

There may be little hope of that happening now.

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