Not everyone in central Labrador will welcome the strip-mining of 400 square kilometres of the Churchill River valley — that river never gets a break these days — but few would argue with the officers of Grand River Iron Sands Inc. that the Upper Lake Melville area needs a better seaport.
Residents who frequent the Terrington Basin, where the military built the first wharf during the Second World War, might grumble at losing more waterfront so that the company can lay down up to 400,000 tonnes of semi-processed iron before shipping it out, but none could deny that the dock facilities need lots of improvement — no matter who intends to use them.
The docks today are a simple concrete 244-metre-long marginal wharf that can handle side-loading freighters and passenger vessels, but has no special equipment or ramps for any vehicle ferries that might tie up — something that hasn’t happened regularly since the MV Sir Robert Bond was taken off the defunct Goose Bay-Cartwright-Lewisporte run almost four years ago.
A warehouse and fenced-in cargo yard, some sheds and fuel tanks, as well as a ticket office and waiting room, still serve one ferry and several tankers and freighters (mostly heading for the north coast), but beyond that Goose Bay’s provincial wharf can only boast a patch of overgrown willows surrounding a collection of abandoned trailers — one of which used to operate as a fast-food takeout.
The lay-down area is nowhere near big enough to meet the mining company’s requirements and is still more suitable for handling timber destined for Newfoundland, but few logs have waited there in recent years.
There have long been strong demands that the facilities be upgraded, not only to better serve Labrador’s communities, but also to connect the region with the wider world.
Almost 10 years ago, both the Labrador North Chamber of Commerce and Nunavut’s Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce were jointly boosting a plan that could see Goose Bay become the hub of a sea service linking Labrador not only with Iqaluit, but with Greenland, Iceland and the rest of northern Europe.
In a report delivered in 2007 the chambers noted that all the international service required was some minor help from the provincial government and the agreement of an established shipping company (Iceland-based Eimskip) to extend its route northwards.
“This action plan is a high priority opportunity because it can tie into an established service,” the report said. “This action plan is low risk and has the potential to open up new markets for Labrador resources.”
The chambers considered the proposed service between Goose Bay and Iqaluit, via northern coastal Labrador, to present a higher risk, since it necessitated the purchase of a new vessel costing around $30 million, as estimated at the time.
However, they felt the potential benefits were equally high, since the new Trans-Labrador Highway would give Nunavut access to the entire continent. Again, the plan didn’t need much from provincial authorities.
“The service represents an extension of the current coastal service in Northern Coastal Labrador. ... The Action Plan will require the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to allow this service to operate beyond Nain.”
That never happened — just as Goose Bay’s docking facilities were never improved to help the ambitious plans.
Even though the government of the day (the same as currently, but under Premier Danny Williams) voiced support for a Goose Bay-Iqaluit connection, it seems to have done little to further it. The government did spend money on a much-heralded Labrador Transportation Strategy that should have dealt with the proposal, but it never actually produced one.
Furthermore, neither wharf improvements nor the Iqaluit link were mentioned in the Northern Strategic Plan for Labrador.
In fact, the government had already made it clear in 2006 it had no money for expanding services or improving facilities:
“A main issue for the province is that while the federal government transferred one-time funding to the province in 1997 through the Labrador Transportation Initiative Agreement, this is not sufficient to maintain the infrastructure and continue to subsidize cost over the long term.”
That means Labrador Iron Sands might be forced to look for other ways to ship their ingots out to market.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.