HALIFAX: As soon as the ground freezes, 700-acres of land along the Strait of Canso designated for the Melford Atlantic Gateway Terminal is scheduled to be cleared, another step towards building the proposed container terminal in Guysborough County.

Following the selection of Colorado-based BergerABAM to provide engineering services for the planned terminal and logistics park, Richie Mann, vice president of marketing with Melford Atlantic Gateway, said they continue to move the project along on a number of fronts.

“We’ve been working with [BergerABAM] on various designs, models and things that could become the final version, depending on a number of factors that are yet to be determined,” Mann told The Reporter in a phone interview Thursday. “We signed a contract with Port Hawkesbury Paper to have them take the merchantable wood off the site, and whatever isn’t merchantable to use for biomass.”

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Something that had to be done as a pre-construction exercise – as a result Melford Atlantic Gateway has had to go back and update certain things while they have their environmental permits because of the length of time that has passed since they were originally issued.

“Our plan there is we’re hoping we’ll be able to do that clearing once the frost gets in the ground and it’s quite hard and becomes optimal conditions for the harvesters and operators to go in and do that.”

Located approximately 14-kilometers south of Mulgrave, the $450 million facility would be located on the western shore of the Strait of Canso. The Strait of Canso is the deepest, ice-free harbour on the eastern seaport of North America.

The 315-acre marine container terminal will become the closest North American port on the Great Circle Route to Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal. The fully-permitted terminal is specially designed to accommodate Ultra Large Container Vessels for both trans-shipment throughout North America’s east coast and intermodal service to Eastern Canada and U.S. markets through a connection to the Canadian National (CN) railway.

Mann said when they first started the idea of putting a terminal in Melford, it was recognized as an ideal site for container handling, perhaps the best location in North America, and at the time there was tremendous growth in the containerization industry.

“Particularly from India and China, and there were great predictions that all East coast ports and all North American ports were going to be significantly congested so there was a need for more capacity,” he said. “We started doing this, then all of a sudden the recession hit, and the growth stalled, and actually went backwards and all of a sudden it was the potential to be more cost effective, a better cost option that made Melford more attractive than the congestion issue.”

Components of the terminal will include a three-berth marine container terminal capable of hosting post/new – Panamax and Malaccamax container vessels, an international rail facility, a logistics park, and a 32-kilometre rail spur from the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway mainline in the community of Linwood.

It will include phased construction of a 172-acre container terminal, including a 1,095 metre wharf, an on-dock intermodal rail yard, container handling equipment, customs and cargo screening equipment, site security, utilities, maintenance facility and an administrative center.

Today some of the challenges are, not just for Melford but for many, Mann said is that the trade wars are on, the tariffs and the uncertainty of international trade – makes it hard to secure long term commitments.

“So again, that’s probably slowing things down a bit, and continues to be something we work through. Many consider Canada to be a safe haven in spite all of this,” he said. “But at the same time you’re talking about ultimately, in our business case, moving cargo from Asia, China, and Europe through to the U.S. mid-west, with the United States being the destination of much of the cargo some of those trade issues and tariffs certainly are impacted.”

No carriers have made commitments to the terminal yet, and Mann said the company will now discuss options on moving the project forward without a major commitment from a carrier.

“If we can’t get that long term contract locked in with a carrier, we need to look at how we proceed with that, and it may go to dealing with multi-carrier, getting commitments to use it without actual numbers tied to it, investing more money upfront taking the risk out of it rather than de-risking it through committed volumes.”

Mann said they’d like to get shovels in the ground as soon as possible and if everything goes together it’ll be sooner rather than later and notes some of the things they’re doing are getting them prepared to do so, such as clearing the land, the final design, and making it tender ready.

“We’re certainly anticipating moving in a position to do that before too long.”