Laurentia project fails impact assessment

by Mark Cardwell and Emily Atkins

Officials with the Quebec Port Authority remain gobsmacked by the federal government’s decision in June to scupper its heavily promoted project to build a deep-water container terminal on the St. Lawrence River.

But other actors in intermodal freight transport appear untroubled by the demise of the Laurentia project, which the port spent $14 million selling as a strategic piece of national infrastructure needed to attract the growing traffic of massive container ships on the Eastern seaboard.

“We received the federal government’s decision with great disappointment,” Mario Girard, the Quebec Port Authority’s president and CEO, wrote in a statement to project stakeholders on June 30, a day after the federal government nixed the project over environmental, socio-economic and land-use concerns.

In its decision, the IAAC focused on how the striped bass (a local fish) habitat would be adversely affected by the development.

“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to reconcile our experts’ opinions with those of the experts at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC)…We remain convinced that there were workable solutions and that Laurentia was a fundamentally good project, both for the economy and for the environment. But today we need to accept the verdict of the federal authorities and look to the future,” Girard said.

Six years of planning

Six years of planning work went into the Laurentia project under the Port’s leadership. The terminal had been designed to meet high environmental standards.

According to the Port’s own estimates, Laurentia would also have delivered an overall GHG reduction of 84,000 tonnes per year across the logistics chain, including seven million fewer kilometres of trucking on Quebec roads alone.

Neither of the port’s two partners in the $750-million Laurentia project – CN and Hutchison Ports – returned requests for comment about the federal decision.

Industry stakeholders who did comment seemed untroubled by the demise of Laurentia, which was both modelled after and sold as a Port of Prince Rupert-style project for Eastern Canada.

“Those of us involved in supply chain, logistics, and freight transportation were surprised at the federal decision to turn [it] down,” said Bob Ballantyne, former president and senior advisor with the Freight Management Association of Canada.

Viability of a fourth port

Though he was unaware of the environmental and social concerns over the project and had not read the federal government’s final decision, Ballantyne said, “on the surface it seemed like a reasonable project that would benefit the Quebec and Ontario economies.”

“However, I was wondering about the viability of a fourth eastern Canadian container port given that Montreal, Halifax and Saint John are all active and that the Port of Montreal is moving ahead with its new Contrecoeur container project.”

Nils Haupt, senior director of corporate communications at Hapag-Lloyd AG, shared a similar sentiment. “We believe that the infrastructure on the Canadian East Coast with Halifax, St. John and Montreal is pretty much okay – even more as the planned extensions in Montreal and in St. John will offer even better opportunities for carriers like Hapag-Lloyd,” Haupt wrote.

Christine Beaulieu, speaking for the Port of Montreal – Canada’s second-largest port, after Vancouver – said the facility “won’t comment” on the federal government’s torpedoing of Laurentia at its sister facility downstream in Quebec.

Instead, she played up Montreal’s role as the top port in Eastern Canada and a world-class intermodal hub with global reach – albeit with water-level restrictions and the Quebec Bridge that prohibit large container vessels from ascending the St. Lawrence beyond Quebec City.

Lane Farguson, manager of media relations and communications at the Port of Halifax, said the visit in May of the 16,000-TEU, 400-metre-long CGM Marco Polo – the largest container vessel to ever visit a Canadian port – proves the ability of his facility to both attract and handle massive container vessels calling on the East Coast.