Madam Speaker, I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to this motion by my Tory colleague pertaining to an issue of great concern: our drinking water.
First, I will read the motion, and then we can develop together the whole theme of drinking water. The motion reads as follows:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should act with the provinces and territories to establish enforceable national drinking water standards that would be enshrined in a Safe Water Act.
First, I would like to say that we are not against high standards for the monitoring and quality of drinking water. It is all the more essential in the light of recent events, such as what happened in Walkerton or what is going on right now in western Canada, or even the risk of contaminant migration on federal lands for instance.
Take military bases like Bagotville or Valcartier, where, according to some Department of National Defence reports, the contamination could have a major impact on the individual wells of residents in municipalities like Shannon and La Baie, in the Lac-Saint-Jean area. I think this is a matter of concern both at the Canadian level and at the Quebec level.
We agree about national standards, and I remind hon. members that on June 19, the environment minister announced a regulatory project, currently before Cabinet, to tighten standards on the quality of drinking water in Quebec.
It is therefore a priority not only in Canada, but in Quebec as well. Water has long been a matter of concern to Quebecers.
Need I recall the major symposium we held in Quebec in December 1997, where environmentalists, academics and industrialists met to discuss the question of water and drinking water, of course, and the whole issue of Quebec's water resources, how to promote them and how to manage them more effectively in order to protect public health and the environment and to ensure better municipal management of this resource.
This symposium, held in Montreal, led to key findings. The first conclusion was that Quebec needed to establish a policy on water for itself. That was fundamental. It was so fundamental that the whole issue of water was re-examined a month later in Quebec by the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement, which we call the BAPE. In May 2000, after considerable public consultation, it issued a report that provided clearly, on various matters, that Quebec should establish a water policy in the near future.
The wish was also expressed, and I mention this because it also concerns the issue of water, that the issue of water be considered in the free trade agreements, that water not simply be considered a commodity and that it be excluded from trade agreements being negotiated, such as that of the free trade area of the Americas.
There is another aspect to recall. Moreover, Quebec adopted its own water preservation act. That act, which is currently in effect and which was unanimously passed by the Quebec national assembly, specifically seeks to preserve and protect drinking water and to include this protection in an act, not a safe water act, but an act on the preservation of our drinking water. Again, this legislation was unanimously passed.
I mentioned that we support national standards. Why? Because, as I said earlier, Quebec has already proposed a number of measures through draft regulations tabled in the national assembly, on June 19, 2000. These measures, which basically seek to improve those already in effect in Quebec under the water regulations passed in 1984, would ensure the effective management of drinking water, while always keeping in mind the protection of public health.
These regulations were adopted in 1984 and in June of last year the Quebec government announced amendments and draft regulations. What is the purpose of these draft regulations? First, they are aimed at improving turbidity standards to ensure that the particles in suspension in our drinking water are of acceptable quality.
In a few months, Quebec will adopt, and I am absolutely convinced of that, standards that are twice as strict as the current Canadian standards. This is quite something, considering that some people think that Quebec does not manage its water properly and that its standards are less strict than elsewhere. Yet, we have standards that are twice as strict as the Canadian ones.
The standard for acceptable turbidity will be reduced from five to 0.5 NTU the year immediately following the coming into force of the regulation. The new proposed standard would therefore be twice as strict as the Canadian recommendation for the quality of drinking water, which is, in the other provinces, the same as the standard applied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
First, with these draft regulations, we will put into place stricter standards, in terms of turbidity as well as quality. These standards will be twice as strict as Canadian standards.
We will also increase the number of substances that must be assessed through sample testing. The number of substances to be assessed in sample tests will be increased from the current 46 to 77. Consequently, more substances will be subject to tests.
We must recall that in certain municipalities, tests are presently conducted, for example in waterworks or individual wells, for certain substances only while others are ignored. Nitrate is one example. In many sample tests, the level of nitrate is not analyzed in standard tests to assess drinking water. The number of substances assessed in Quebec will increase from 46 to 77.
Moreover, and this is significant, these regulations will provide for mandatory controls, which will mean more frequent sample testing.
Need I remind the House that, when samples are taken in Quebec, for example when E. coli, which is well known from the Walkerton case, is detected, would we have one of the most stringent sets of regulations requiring that municipalities be notified rapidly in order to ensure that public health and safety are safeguarded and that people are well informed. We will therefore be increasing the number of mandatory controls both for E. coli and for other substances.
Also important is the frequency of testing. As we discovered in the cases of Shannon, La Baie and the Bagotville base, it is not enough to take samples annually.
It is essential to ensure that if a contaminant enters individual wells, which is most often the case, being a rare occurrence in water supply systems, we can increase the frequency of sampling. This is what will be accomplished by the draft regulations which have been introduced in Quebec and which will be adopted in a few weeks or months. The number of samples taken will be increased to eight a month from two a year. This sampling will be mandatory. The frequency will go from the present two samples a year to eight a month. This is the provision in the government of Quebec's draft regulations.
We had water quality regulations in 1984. We will improve on them with draft regulations which can be described as innovative. They are the most stringent regulations a province can enforce. They are so rigorous that, even though the quality of water in Quebec is considered to be the best in Canada, Quebec has decided to improve them.
When I say that Quebec has the best quality of water, I refer to what the Sierra legal defence fund has said. This environmental organisation, which is not an advocate of industry, has given Quebec the highest mark, ahead of all other provinces, in terms of the severity of its requirements regarding drinking water.
On a scale of A to F, Quebec got a B, like Alberta. Nova Scotia got a minus B. I will not mention the others but I will only talk about Quebec. This environmental organization, which is well known and very rigorous in terms of its evaluations, recognized Quebec as having the best quality of drinking water in Canada.
Another important aspect is the issue of infrastructures. This is fundamental. We cannot raise our environmental standards if we do not have operational sewer and water supply systems to treat water effectively. This is fundamental. I will simply refer to the case of Montreal.
A few years ago, the city of Montreal published a report. It was a green book on the evaluation of the sewer and water supply system. According to this report, and I quote:
At present, the city estimates the operation costs associated with the management of drinking water at $118 million and the costs associated with the treatment of wastewater at $83 million.
This was for the city of Montreal alone.
Those costs did not take into account the spending on system improvements. However, the present condition of the system would not necessitate spending of $1 billion but rather between $157 and $225 million.
What we are saying is that the federal government must act as quickly as possible within the existing infrastructure program. However, this is not going to be enough in view of the fact that the sewer and water treatment system of the city of Montreal needs to be improved. The system needs to be improved to ensure there will be no leaks.
If we develop drinking water quality standards, while our sewer system is leaky and is not working properly, my colleagues know what I mean, because we have evaluated the cost of a municipal sewage system malfunction, then the outcome would be contamination of the groundwater and the drinking water would inevitably be contaminated.
The Union des municipalités du Québec and the mayors have all stressed the need for adding to the envelope earmarked for water infrastructure renovation. We need concrete action to get the federal government to invest more in infrastructure improvements.
Another aspect concerns the entire issue of crown land contamination, which has a connection to water quality. In recent weeks I revealed that two military bases are the sites of high levels of contamination: Bagotville and Valcartier.
Reports released under the Access to Information Act clearly indicate that the land at Bagotville is contaminated with nitrate, which is liable to end up in the individual well system of nearby municipalities. I am not making this up, I am not being alarmist, I am merely quoting what the National Defence reports say.
This demonstrates that it is all very well to have standards and laws but if the sites are not decontaminated immediately there are health risks. The risks of exposure to nitrate are high. Exposure to nitrates in drinking water can lead to what is termed blue baby syndrome. Action must be taken, therefore.
On the base at Valcartier, not one but a number of sites are polluted. The Jacques-Cartier River was for many years a munitions depot. This situation inevitably creates problems. At Shannon, there is a very high risk that this pollution will migrate into the wells of some 30 homes. The federal government must therefore do something about this and manage its own land before it tells the provinces what standards they should adopt, especially since Quebec's standards are higher than what the federal government wants to recommend.
Quebec is setting standards for itself that are higher than what the government of Canada is recommending. It is not decontaminating its land, which is polluting the drinking water wells of cities, and it wants to tell us what to do. I think the provinces must be respected. If Quebec wants to establish tighter regulations, can it do so? Can the government honour Quebec's areas of jurisdiction?
As far as I know, water is a provincial matter. It is especially insulting for a province that has standards imposed on it to have the federal government taking the lead in setting these standards. It is rather insulting for a province.
People wonder what business it is of the federal government. Should it not get on with managing its own land? Should it not control the quality of the water on its military bases? That is the issue. No, the federal government prefers, generally, to create a law and standards and tell the provinces what is to be done, when it are not about to give lessons.
In closing, I will say simply that we need higher standards on the quality of drinking water. Clearly, stricter regulations are required, but provincial jurisdictions must be respected, especially when the provinces are the leaders.