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Work begins to make channel dug 8 years ago in Sydney harbour finally usable

The coast guard is starting work to fix navigational aids in Sydney harbour that were never aligned with a deeper channel that was dug in 2012. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Posted on December 8, 2020

Large ships may soon be able to travel through a deep channel in Nova Scotia’s Sydney harbour that has not been used since it was created eight years ago.

The navigational aids that guide ships along an existing channel were thrown out of alignment by the angle of the new, deeper one that was dredged in 2012.

The coast guard, which manages navigational aids such as buoys and range lights in Canadian waters, has always said the cost of fixing the aids in Sydney harbour was the responsibility of the local port authority.

Marlene Usher, CEO of the Port of Sydney Development Corp., said money was set aside from the dredge to cover the cost of the aids, but the coast guard has never done the work.

“It’s an impediment for growth … and it is a bit of a chicken and egg, because they were always of the mind that well, if nobody’s using the dredged channel, then you don’t need the aids,” she said. “But you can’t use it.”

Some large ships have been turned away because the old channel is too shallow and other ships, such as those carrying coal for Nova Scotia Power, have been operating with less than a full load.

‘Very positive thing’

Usher said the deeper dredged channel could be used immediately if the navigational aids were aligned properly.

“It hasn’t silted in,” she said. “We have it surveyed every second year so it would be a very positive thing for the entire harbour.”

Harvey Vardy, director of navigational programs for the coast guard’s Atlantic region, said the port authority was the only user of the aids after the dredge.

He said according to policy, that made them responsible for the costs. However, a review last year found there were more potential users, and that changed things.

“Preliminary work has begun on the engineering design requirements for the port of Sydney and coast guard is now prioritizing the requirements for the port of Sydney with all other aids to navigation requirements across the country,” Vardy said.

He would not elaborate on the new users, but mentioned Nova Scotia Power and Provincial Energy Ventures, both of which were using the harbour in 2012.

Nova Scotia Power even contributed $1 million toward the $38-million dredge, which was mostly paid for by the three levels of government.

Usher said the only new user since the dredging was Kameron Coal, owner of the Donkin mine that went into production in 2017, but has since closed.

Initial estimates put the cost of fixing the navigational aids at about $1.5 million, but that grew to $3.5 million, says Marlene Usher, CEO of the Port of Sydney Development Corp. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

After the dredging was done, $2.5 million was left over and an agreement was struck allowing the port to use that money for specific purposes, including fixing the navigational aids.

Usher said initial estimates put the cost at about $1.5 million, but that grew to $3.5 million.

Under an agreement with the federal government, the port set aside $819,000 for the aids. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic killed the cruise ship season and sank the port’s revenues this year, Ottawa agreed to allow the port to use that money to cover its deficit.

‘You can’t do it piecemeal’

Vardy said the coast guard did not miss out on an opportunity to have at least part of the navigational aid work covered by the port.

He said the project still has to be designed and costed, and then full funding has to be available.

“You can’t do it piecemeal,” Vardy said. “It has to be a complete redesign.”

There is no cost estimate yet, but the work will be done as soon as possible, he said.

“We’re talking into the multimillion-dollar range,” Vardy said. “Now, further analysis is required to give us some more finite costs.”

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