Chi-Cheemaun won’t sail again this week

OWEN SOUND—The Chi-Cheemaun ferry remains berthed in Owen Sound as water levels in Lake Huron remain too low to safely operate the ferry due to the height of the fenders at the docks in South Baymouth, and particularly Tobermory.

The announcement that the commencement of the ferry schedule would be delayed again, until at least May 13, came this past Monday and the decision on whether or not to start the season will be assessed again on Monday, May 13.

“It is a terrible shame,” said Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) President Susan Schrempf. “This would have been a fantastic weekend for the start of the ferry season. Unfortunately, the water levels are still too low to operate safely and Transport Canada has still not addressed the fender issue.”

“It is a terrible shame,” said Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) President Susan Schrempf. “This would have been a fantastic weekend for the start of the ferry season. Unfortunately, the water levels are still too low to operate safely and Transport Canada has still not addressed the fender issue.”

A recent announcement by Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle to pay for the needed repairs to the ferry docks may expedite the process, but so far there has been silence on the issue from Transport Canada.

“Dialogue between the OSTC and Transport Canada has been ongoing for two years without a resolution,” said Minister Gravelle. “It is unfortunate that the federal government has yet to accept its responsibility for the work on the wharves as required under its agreements with the province and the OSTC.”

“With the ferry originally scheduled to begin sailing today, I cannot sit back and allow the current situation to continue,” said Minister Gravelle. “Following a number of urgent requests made directly to Minister Lebel (Transport Canada) over the past few weeks, today we are offering to make the necessary funds available to resolve the problems with the wharf. While we continue to make it  clear that this is certainly a federal responsibility, our immediate goal is that the ferry be able to operate safely as soon as possible to avoid serious harm to the local economies and the interests of the people who rely on this service. We have approached them formally to have this work completed. I look forward to hearing back on the matter immediately so that we can determine the most expeditious path forward.” Lake Huron/Georgian Bay water levels remain below the minimum level required for the ferry to dock safely against the dock fenders at the Tobermory and South Baymouth ferry docks.”

“OSTC will put the ferry into service once the fenders have been modified, or when water levels reach a point where use of the existing fenders is safe for the ferry, our passengers and crew,” said Ms. Schrempf, who has come under considerable fire for the crisis. The ferry docks and fenders are owned and maintained by Transport Canada.

There have been no layoffs at the Chi-Cheemaun, despite claims made by Owen Sound-Grey-Bruce MP Larry Miller and initially reported by the CBC.

[box float=”left”][polldaddy poll=7087423][/box]“We have called everyone back,” said Ms. Schrempf, who noted that the call-back is governed by the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement. “Our employees are aware that there could be layoffs,” she said. “But as to this date, everyone that was coming back is back.”

Ms. Schrempf responded to rumours that the operator is holding back operating to save on costs. “That simply doesn’t bear up to the facts,” she said. “My fixed costs don’t change, they remain the same whether the ferry operates on schedule or not.” Among those costs was a $1.5 million investment over the winter for a new evacuation system for the ship.

“The fuel and dockage costs are more than covered by the passenger fares,” she said. “We are losing money by not being in operation, there are no cost savings to not starting the schedule on time.”

The major issue is in Tobermory, noted the OSTC CEO, where the fenders are much higher than they are in South Baymouth. The higher location of the fenders means the ferry can’t dock there even if they can in South Baymouth. “I know people think the water is up enough in South Baymouth,” she said. “But the fenders in South Baymouth are lower than they are in Tobermory.”

Ms. Schrempf said that she has had no indication that the work will begin. “I am certain I will hear in due course,” she said. “But the announcement from the province that they will pay for the work just came out.” It will take time for the tendering process to be completed.

Rumours that an Island company had already received the contract to do the work were denied by the company named in those rumours and other companies in that industry also denied hearing anything about the contract.

In the event the contract is let, Ms. Schrempf is confident the ferry could run even as the repairs are underway, provided the water cooperates. “We can stand off at Tobermory during the night so they can complete the work,” she said. “We don’t overnight at South Baymouth, so the work can be done at night there as well.”

Algoma-Manitoulin Liberal nomination hopeful Craig Hughson, who has worked for the provincial government on both sides of the political line, lent his pressure to find a resolution to the problem. “We heard from a number of concerned groups, businesses and individuals about just how important the MS Chi-Cheemaun is,” said Maya Gorham, director of communications with the Office of the Honourable Michael Gravelle, Minister of Northern Development and Mines. “Certainly including Craig Hughson, who reached out personally to ensure the matter continued to be made a priority.”

“We have complete confidence in her, 100 percent,” said OSTC Chair Barney Hopkins, who added that the board has been following the issue for some time. “The people who are criticizing her should be pointing their fingers in the direction of the federal government. Call the ministry. We have been trying to negotiate this with Transport Canada for two years.”

Ms. Schrempf noted that she has received a large number of communications regarding the ferry delay, most placing blame on her personally. “It comes with the territory,” she said. “People are understandably upset, I certainly can’t blame them, and I am the face of the company.”

The OSTC board has voiced its unqualified support for their beleaguered CEO.

“We have complete confidence in her, 100 percent,” said OSTC Chair Barney Hopkins, who added that the board has been following the issue for some time. “The people who are criticizing her should be pointing their fingers in the direction of the federal government. Call the ministry. We have been trying to negotiate this with Transport Canada for two years.”

Michael Erskine