The motion moved by my colleague is the first step the government must take to establish a new relationship of respect and trust with the residents of Shannon. I think adopting this motion is imperative, not just as a gesture of solidarity, but as a recognition of the then federal government's responsibility for the contamination of the groundwater in the municipality of Shannon and the Valcartier military base. Those communities need that recognition in order to get justice and to move forward.
We know that in 1997, the Department of National Defence detected TCE in the groundwater under CFB Valcartier and that, a few years later, that same toxin was found in the private wells of citizens of Shannon, the municipality next to the base.
To better understand the context of the motion, we have to go back a number of decades to a time when TCE, a toxic industrial solvent, was used on the military base. People used to dispose of the used solvent by simply burying it in the ground. TCE, or trichloroethylene, is a chemical that was used for many years for metal degreasing, as was the case on the military base, for dry cleaning and for extracting organic products. With the discovery of its toxicity, the chemical agent was gradually replaced with less dangerous products. Individuals are now prohibited from using TCE in the European Union.
TCE is thought to be a carcinogen that affects the central nervous system. Because of the way in which TCE was disposed of in the ground on the military base, the contaminated groundwater ended up in the wells and drinking water systems of thousands of residents. As a result, in recent years, Shannon has recorded specific health problems and a cancer rate five times the normal rate.
While time passes and the government refuses to take any responsibility for the TCE-contaminated groundwater at CFB Valcartier and in Shannon, the people in those communities continue to have physical and emotional health problems and continue to develop diseases such as cancer.
More than 350 residents have died from cancer linked to the TCE-contaminated wells in Shannon. In total, over 500 people have developed cancer in a town of barely 5,000 inhabitants. Moreover, as Marie-Paule Spieser, president of the Shannon Citizens Committee, said:
There is still a plume beneath our feet, six kilometres long and 600 metres wide, and thus, there is still a danger from gases. There is also a latency period between contact with this product and the onset of cancer.
Therefore, we can still expect an excessively high cancer rate in Shannon for many years to come. How many cancers, deaths and unfortunate events—the kind that destroy entire families—will it take for the government to act in solidarity and give tangible help to the people of Shannon who are paying with their lives for their decision to live in this town rather than another?
As my colleague's motion says, it is high time for the federal government to recognize its responsibility for contaminating the groundwater in Shannon by the Department of National Defence's disposal of TCE on its land. So far, the government has maintained its closed ears and mind, and this is unacceptable.
The scientific evidence in this matter is solid and clearly shows the causal link between TCE and the extremely high rates of cancer and other illnesses among current residents, as well as among those who once lived in the area but have since moved away. Worse yet, we know not only that the government does not want to admit its liability and compensate victims properly, but also that DND was aware of this practice and of the contamination as early as 1978, without taking any corrective measures.
A report seen on the program Enquête showed that the government has been aware of water contamination in Shannon and on the military base for 30 years. According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the federal environment and defence departments were warned that waste water was being discharged into a lagoon connected to the groundwater. The people of Shannon drank that contaminated water for 22 years before discovering the contamination themselves, quite by chance, in 2000.
The NDP recognizes, of course, that this disastrous situation is not the fault of the current government. Still, as the representative of the Crown, the government is responsible for any situation on Canada's military bases, even if the cause goes back decades.
In 2007, because they were still fighting on their own to defend their rights and obtain justice, 3,000 people formed the Shannon Citizens Committee, which launched a class action suit against the government and SNC-Lavalin Group, which was also played a part in the contamination.
To date, the government has invested $35.8 million to hook up part of the municipality of Shannon to a new water supply system. That is very good and we commend the government for this action. However, as I mentioned earlier, access to drinking water is a fundamental human right. In short, the government has taken a very small step toward solving a big and ongoing health and contamination problem.
In the meantime, residents have had to pay out of their own pockets for wells and bottled water, not to mention the fact that their property values may also decline because their homes are built directly over a contaminated water table. Furthermore, the facts remain the same: the government stubbornly refuses to accept its responsibility. The Crown is not to blame because it does not acknowledge any link between the TCE contamination of the groundwater and the health problems of the residents of Shannon. This long and arduous legal battle, which has cost the group $4 million, is not over yet. They are waiting for the decision that will be handed down by the summer or fall of 2012. While waiting for the outcome, the government could be gracious by immediately adopting the NDP motion.
These people have already had to deal with many health issues, not to mention financial troubles. They feel betrayed by the government that is supposed to protect them. The state has an obligation to provide services that are safe and meet certain standards, and it also has an obligation to take the necessary measures to resolve problematic health situations when it becomes aware that people are at risk. That clearly did not happen in this case.
The federal government must act on its acknowledgement of responsibility by implementing measures to support and compensate current and past residents of the municipality. It must monitor the filtration system currently being used by people dealing with contaminated drinking water. To ensure the participation of all stakeholders and complete transparency, the citizens committee should be included in this process and in any environmental efforts the government undertakes.
The government may not have acted deliberately, but it did play a part in creating the problem, and therefore it must ensure that every person who was employed on the base or lived in the residential quarters during the contamination period is notified and compensated appropriately on the same basis as current residents of Shannon.
To sum up, I urge the government to show some compassion and be fair to the people of Shannon who have been living with the terrible consequences of groundwater contamination for decades by supporting my colleague's motion.