Four new double-hulled barges joining the NWT transportation fleet will make water-bound deliveries faster and safer, the territorial government says.
The barges arrived in Tuktoyaktuk on Monday after being manufactured in and shipped from China. Chinese and NWT authorities coordinated a hand-off via radio 381 kilometres off the coast of Tuk, keeping contact and exposure to a minimum during the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Vandenberg, assistant deputy minister of the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure, told Cabin Radio the barges were purchased to comply with federal regulations regarding marine transportation of petroleum products.
“There needs to be a space in the hull … between the water and the product,” Vandenberg said, to reduce the risk of oil spills.
The four new barges arrive on the back of a transport ship. Photo: GNWT
“These barges serve that regulation.”
In the NWT, barges are primarily used to deliver petroleum products to communities along the Mackenzie watershed. Marine Transportation Services (MTS) makes two to three trips a year down the Mackenzie River from Hay River to communities such as Norman Wells, Tulita, and Fort Good Hope.
Communities in the Beaufort Delta, where the new barges will be used, also receive barge shipments via the Arctic Ocean.
According to Vandenberg, MTS can typically make two complete trips to ocean communities such as Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour, and Paulatuk each year, depending on the capacity of the barges and the amount of product that needs to be delivered.
Barge deliveries have not always run smoothly.
In 2018, then-infrastructure minister Wally Schumann cancelled barge resupply services to Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, and Paulatuk in the NWT, citing “impassable ice.”
The GNWT hopes the new, bigger barges, with more storage space, will mean only one trip needs to be made each year.
“These barges give us the opportunity to travel once to each of the communities, providing them with all their deck cargo and their entire quantity of petroleum products for the year,” Vandenberg said. “That is operational savings, and furthermore, it reduces the risk [of an oil spill].”
Reducing the risk of environmental damage was an important factor in the territory’s decision to purchase the barges, according to Vandenberg.
“We are sailing, in these cases, through Marine Protected Areas, which are very important, both culturally and in terms of assessments for our northern communities,” he said.
The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has two Marine Protected Areas: Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam, near Paulatuk, designated in 2016, and Tarium Niryutait on the territory’s western Arctic coast, designated in 2010.
Both areas are protected to conserve marine life like beluga whales.
In July, the CBC reported Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson – who represents Arctic coastal communities in the territory – said the barges are a “big deal” for his riding and he was “looking forward to making sure all [of his] coastal communities are being serviced.”
On board as the barges are transferred. Photo: GNWT
However, not everyone shared Jacobson’s enthusiasm.
During a Legislative Assembly sitting in June, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson expressed concern about whether the new barges would be suited to traverse the Mackenzie River.
“These barges are 3500 series versus our current 1500 series,” Simpson said at the time. “They are heavier than our double-hulled Deh Cho barges … there will be problems offloading deck crates, so communities’ fuel capacities to be cut in half, probably … because these barges are really ocean-going class, not suitable for shallow water.”
Neither Simpson nor Jacobson returned requests for comment this week.
Vandenberg disputed Simpson’s characterization of the new barges, saying they are “built to manage the river.”
“We can carry about a million and a half litres in our existing single-hull 1500 series barges,” he said.
“On the river, given the draft, these new barges will carry about the same amount … but when we get into the deeper water past the Mackenzie Delta, which is the [intended] use of these barges, we can carry at least three million litres in each barge.”
The barges were built in China, the GNWT says, as no North American company expressed interest when the project was put out to tender in late 2018 and early 2019.