Mr. Speaker, in May 2000, 2,300 people fell ill after E. coli bacteria contaminated the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario. Sweeping Conservative cutbacks to the Ontario Ministry of Environment contributed to the tragedy, the most serious case of water contamination in Canadian history.
For a first example of the impact of the cutbacks, the Conservative government discontinued laboratory testing services for municipalities in 1996 and failed to put in place a regulation making the reporting of contamination mandatory. Had the government done this, hundreds of illnesses would have been prevented.
For a second example, Conservative cuts to the Ministry of the Environment made the ministry less capable of identifying and dealing with problems at Walkerton's water utility. The ministry's inspections program should have detected the improper treatment and monitoring practices and ensured that those practices were corrected.
In January 2002, Premier Mike Harris accepted responsibility for the shortcomings of the Conservative government. He said:
I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering you have experienced.
I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the Government of Ontario.
I deeply regret any factors leading to the events of May 2000 that were the responsibility of the Government of Ontario....
History teaches hard lessons, reminding us that prevention is the best line of defence and that worst-case scenarios do happen.
In examining past disasters such as when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in 1989 and when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, we see that key decisions were frequently made without assessing the risks, and sufficient prevention measures were not always taken. When extreme cases did occur, responses were often delayed and opportunities to reduce damage were lost. Most recently, the lesson to prepare for worst-case scenarios was repeated with the double disaster of the east Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
It has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Unfortunately, economic action plan 2012, or the inaction plan for the environment, and Bill C-38, the budget implementation bill, show a complete failure to learn from the past, namely that past cuts to the environment have resulted in dire consequences and that worst-case scenarios do occur.
Instead, the budget implementation bill continues the Conservative government's war on the environment. An astonishing 150 pages of the 400-plus-page budget are focused on streamlining or gutting environmental oversight. The government is absolutely trying to avoid public scrutiny by jamming such major changes into Bill C-38, thereby avoiding specific study of the changes at individual parliamentary committees. Critics have called it an affront to democracy. As a result, on Friday I called upon the government to hive off changes to environmental protection and then send them to the relevant committee for a thorough clause-by-clause study.
Bill C-38 is an attack on our best means of defence, namely environmental protection monitoring and emergency response. The budget severely cuts Environment Canada, reduces our number of scientists, eliminates the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the independent think tank with a direct mandate from Parliament, silences the government's critics and guts environmental legislation.
Environment Canada will lose 200 positions. Last summer, the government announced cuts of 700 positions and a 43% cut to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Key research and monitoring initiatives, which sample air pollution, industrial emissions, water quality, waste water et cetera, and partnerships for a greener economy will be cut $7.5 million.
It is important that parliamentarians have the opportunity to do due diligence and to identify all areas of scientific research and partnerships to be cut and to see how each identified cut is projected to impact decision-making and the development of public policy.
Critics of the government are being silenced through changes to the Canada Revenue Agency and attempts to seize control of the university research agenda. Critics are also being silenced through exclusion of concerned groups and citizens from the environmental review process for pipelines.
Bill C-38 effectively dismantles Canada's environmental laws as we know them, by the repeal of the Kyoto Implementation Act and the wholesale repeal of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and its replacement with a new law that allows the federal government to avoid environmental reviews of many potentially harmful projects and to do less-comprehensive reviews where they still occur. What are the impacts of the repeal of CEAA on regulatory decision-making and the risk of project-specific and cumulative environmental impacts? What is the adequacy of the environmental assessment process in each province and territory and the impacts of industrial projects that cross provincial borders? The weakening of several environmental laws including species at risk in water and near elimination of fish habitat protection in the Fisheries Act puts species from coast to coast to coast at increased risk of habitat loss and population decline. The authority of the federal cabinet to approve new pipeline projects is now above the National Energy Board.
Astoundingly, as the government guts environmental legislation to fast-track development of major projects such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline and to allow oil tankers in northern British Columbia waters, it is cutting $3.8 million from emergency disaster response and consolidating the unit that responds to oil spill emergencies in central Canada, namely Gatineau and Montreal. Key questions regarding the government's preparation for and ability to respond to environmental emergencies should include how many positions in the unit will be slashed; how consolidating the unit in Quebec will impact operations and the predicted response time to travel from the new location to the oil spill; whether the unit will have the financial and technical resources necessary to respond to oil spill emergencies, including those emergencies involving diluted bitumen on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and along the proposed route of the Northern Gateway Pipeline project; and what action the government has undertaken regarding risk assessment and worst-case scenarios related to the navigation of oil tankers and potential diluted bitumen oil spills.
With independent science squashed, environmental legislation gutted and critics silenced, what stands in the way of environmental disaster? The government must stop its war on the environment, science and indeed anyone who threatens to stand in its way of fast-tracking development. Canada needs robust environmental legislation to protect ecosystems, the health and safety of Canadians, the communities in which we live, the economy and our livelihoods.
I will finish by saying that I spent years of my career undertaking disaster prevention, response and recovery, helping organizations across North America prepare for extreme events resulting from climate change and preparing for pandemics, as well as designing the full disaster preparedness program for the university. The United Nations development program has recently asked me to be on the steering committee for international parliamentarians regarding disaster reduction.
Finally, in the wake of disasters, people often wonder whether there was a way to protect both people and property from such devastating losses. The answer is a resounding “yes, by taking action to prevent future damage before a problem occurs”. In order to prevent another tragedy, the government must ensure that Environment Canada's programs and scientists are fully funded to support scientific excellence in prevention, monitoring and emergency response and hive off the environmental protection sections from Bill C-38 and allow public scrutiny of the bill through clause-by-clause study at the appropriate committee.