Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member raising this matter in the House, because it is a matter that is extremely critical to my constituents and, frankly, all Albertans.
The issue of rail safety is top of mind in Edmonton—Strathcona. Our riding is laced with rail lines, crossings, terminals, and loading for petrochemicals and bitumen. Up until about a month ago, tanker cars of bitumen and chemicals sat right in the centre of Edmonton—Strathcona, right in the busiest section of historic Old Strathcona.
Much to the delight of my constituents and to everybody's surprise in the city of Edmonton, Canadian Pacific has announced that it is now considering selling off some of those properties. I am very pleased. I have been working with city councillors, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and my constituents, trying to get Canadian Pacific to think seriously about improving safety for my constituents, let alone the nuisance of having rush-hour traffic backed up.
Rail safety is top of mind. However, it is not just the issue of inconvenience or the risk to residents. About a decade ago, the largest spill off a railroad into fresh water in North America occurred in a lake where, for four generations, my family has had property, Wabamun Lake. To this day, a good portion of that Bunker C and pole oil remains in the bottom of that lake. Nobody knows what will happen to it.
There is, of course, heightened concern in that Wabamun community of residents to monitoring what is going on with train loads, the speeds, the state of the rail lines, and the crossings. I get repeated calls from residents out in that area, very concerned that the inspection is not catching a lot of the concerns.
I have heard from residents in Slave Lake, Alberta, with concerns that a rail bridge there that was partly burned out is not being maintained. Of course, at Christmastime this past year we witnessed the derailment in Banff National Park and the dumping of hazardous substances into a very important fishery in our national park.
Rail safety is top of mind to people in Edmonton—Strathcona, all Albertans, and all Canadians. Of course, Lac-Mégantic is one of the most recent incredible tragedies that could have been prevented if we had better measures in place and better enforcement.
Rail safety is a critical issue. We just heard that from one of the government members, and the government even said in its throne speech that the federal government is going to take action and it will be tabling legislation on rail safety. However, this is coming through a private member's bill, which of course raises the question about why the government is not coming forward with an omnibus bill with many long-awaited measures that the Transportation Safety Board has identified even as recently as in the Lac-Mégantic review.
It is time for the federal government to act, because railroads are 100% regulated by the federal government. My community, as with communities across Canada, lives with the frustration of being left trying to negotiate with the rail companies to address these kinds of issues, including safety issues at rail crossings, because the federal government has simply not stepped forward.
We need improved legislation, improved regulations, and more inspectors, but we also need the federal government to embrace this portfolio more deeply and to step forward and work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which is trying to address these issues.
In tabling the bill, the member for Winnipeg South Centre suggested that the amendment she has tabled will, if passed, grant additional powers to the minister to intervene to improve safety at all regulated grade crossings. She mentions there are 14,000 public crossings and 9,000 private crossings, which is 23,000 crossings. I guess the obvious question is this. Can Canadians anticipate that, when this legislation comes forward, we are going to immediately have 23,000 crossing addressed? We have heard many members in the House raise concerns. Where is the additional manpower?
The amendments are puzzling for a number of reason. One of the most apparent ones is that the essence of those amendments appears to already be in the act. Very recently the government came forward and actually amended the law. In section 4(4), it actually clarified that railway operations are safely operated when there is a threat to railway operations that impact property and persons and so forth.
Later on section (4.1) was added, which specifically says:
For the purposes of this Act, a threat is a hazard or condition that could reasonably be expected to develop into a situation in which a person could be injured or made to be ill or damage could be caused to the environment or property, and a threat is immediate if such a situation already exists.
I am left puzzled as to how these proposed amendments are going to fit with the amendments the government only recently made. It would be useful to take a look at those in committee to see if they actually are needed, or if the committee needs to address some of the amendments the government only recently brought forward. The intent is good, but I am puzzled why these measures need to be added when the government seems to have already done so.
Of more concern is that at a time when communities are desperately begging the government to give them a greater voice in the kind of rail traffic going through communities, such as at what speed, the length of trains, and the types of cargo being carried, this bill would actually diminish the rights of concerned communities and property owners to seek reviews or upgrades where the risks are to health, environment, or property. It would actually give the minister power to ignore the objection and concern. At committee, it would be very important to take a look at the wording, because it does not enable communities to have greater voice. It would diminish that power.
The powers assigned to the Minister of Transport to issue orders and corrective measures are good. There are a lot of those already in the bill. I would recommend, consistent with what most environmental laws now provide, that those powers be immediately assigned to inspectors, the field inspectors who are in the community and witnessing where there are dangerous situations, so they can immediately be empowered to take action. That is something else I suggest the committee take a look at.
The act already empowers the cabinet to issue regulations for rail crossing safety. Apparently, the government has not moved it forward. I look forward to being corrected on that. Otherwise, surely the member would not have felt it necessary to come forward with amendments to the statute. That is another thing that could be looked at.
Finally, I look forward to this matter being brought before this place. I am deeply concerned that one of our major industrial sectors, the rail sector, has increased its shipments of dangerous cargo, including raw bitumen, petrochemicals, and so forth more than a thousandfold in the last couple of years. Yet the government has not seen fit to amend the Canadian Transportation Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. A review of that increased traffic of hazardous substances would allow for an environmental impact assessment.
The government member who spoke before me pointed out that this is a growing industrial sector. There has been increased traffic, including of hazardous substances, and yet the government has not seen fit to amend its laws to make sure that this kind of activity undergoes at least a proper environmental screening and assessment so that the communities that might be impacted could have a voice in that decision-making.