Madam Speaker, I would like to begin with a few questions, especially about Conservatives taking real, practical actions.
First of all, why now? Why did the Conservatives not propose this in, say, 2012, when they were drafting and gazetting the waste-water systems effluent regulations? Were they guilty of an oversight at that time? Second, why did the member not introduce his private member's bill in 2015, after he was no longer Speaker. Third, why, four years later, when the member was leader of his party, did he not include this proposal in the 2019 Conservative election platform?
The Fisheries Act already prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances, including sewage, into fish-bearing waters, unless expressly allowed by regulation. The fact is that the Harper government's waste-water regulations gave a de facto exemption to municipalities under the Fisheries Act to deposit a deleterious substance, namely waste water, into fish-bearing waters. This exemption was not carte blanche, however. It came with limits on how much of a regulated substance can be released into the environment. The waste-water regulations also impose deadlines on municipalities for building and upgrading their systems to meet the standards of secondary treatment, a biological process that can remove up to 95% of contaminants.
By way of background, six billion cubic metres of waste water are discharged into marine and freshwater ecosystems in Canada every year. Of this amount, approximately 72% is treated to the level of at least secondary treatment, 25% is under-treated and the remaining 3% is untreated, coming from continuous discharges in communities without a waste-water plant, from releases from combined sewer systems where waste water and storm water flow together in the same pipe and can overflow during heavy rainfalls, from spills due to equipment failure and negligence, and finally, from occasional planned releases deemed necessary to allow for system construction or maintenance.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the Harper government's bungling of the 2015 waste-water release in Montreal, which caught the government off guard in the middle of an election campaign. The planned release was needed to allow maintenance on a key interceptor in the city's waste-water system. It should be noted that Montreal has a single massive waste-water plant, the largest in North America and the third largest in the world, providing primary and secondary waste-water treatment. The city is introducing ozonation, which will allow it to achieve tertiary treatment by 2023, at which time the city will have the largest ozone waste-water plant in the world.
A belt of sewers runs around the island. The whole system is on a slope from west to east, with the treatment plant located at the eastern tip of the island. Gravity draws sewage from all around the island to the plant, reducing the need for energy-consuming pumping stations along the route. There are no alternative waste-water plants on the island, no safety valves, as it were. If the plant gets damaged, that's a huge problem for the city and communities downstream.
In 2015, the city applied to the province for a permit for a planned release and obtained Quebec's authorization to do so. The city also contacted Environment Canada twice, in September 2014 and September 2015, but, as I understand it, was met with radio silence. The Conservative government only realized there was an issue when the story hit the headlines, in Canada and internationally, at which point it cleverly punted the matter until after the election.
On November 9, 2015, the new Liberal government issued a ministerial order under section 37 of the Fisheries Act to require Montreal to make adjustments to its initial release plan. These adjustments were based on the recommendations of an expert panel. It should be noted that the Liberal government did not authorize the release, even though the province had. Section 37 of the act, while not giving the federal government the power to authorize a release like Montreal's, allows the minister to “require any modifications or additions to the work, undertaking or activity or any modifications to any plans, specifications, procedures or schedules relating to it that the Minister considers necessary in the circumstances”. That is what the new minister, the member for Ottawa Centre, did. She ordered changes to the plan to minimize impacts based on the recommendations of an expert panel.
Environment and Climate Change Canada is holding consultations with a view to making improvements to the temporary bypass provisions in sections 43 to 49 of the waste-water systems effluent regulations. Currently under the regulations, a bypass authorization for a release of untreated waste water can only be given for maintenance work that is being done at a waste-water plant, that is, at a final point of discharge, not at other points along the system.
The objective of upcoming amendments to the regulations is to allow the government to provide bypass authorizations for work being done beyond the plant itself, thereby creating a regulatory framework that would encourage better planning of emergency releases such as the one that occurred in Montreal.
Enter Bill C-269, which seeks to make it an offence to proceed with any releases of raw sewage into fish-bearing waters. It sounds great, but as is often the case with private members' bills, they are not drafted with the benefit of appropriate expertise and are often designed more for political effect than to achieve a constructive objective.
If passed, Bill C-269 could have serious unintended consequences for the environment.
First, the proposed prohibition would apply to waste water that is already treated to a high standard. This is because even effluents that are subject to advanced levels of treatment still contain contaminants from raw sewage that have not been separated and removed, as required by the bill. Therefore, all communities across Canada would be in potential violation of the proposed law, notwithstanding their high degree of waste-water treatment in most cases. In effect, they would have to shut down their waste-water plants.
Second, the definition of raw sewage in Bill C-269 is ambiguous and likely to include more than just effluent from human or domestic sources. The bill's definition could include industrial, commercial and institutional effluents that contain low or manageable levels of such sewage. The bill could therefore interfere with the development and implementation of regulations to control industrial effluents. For example, the bill could impede the ongoing process of updating the pulp and paper regulations, a process aimed at, among other things, capturing facilities producing non-traditional products from wood and other plant material, and also aimed at lowering current effluent limits as well as adding limits for additional substances.
Third, the bill would exempt the north, where, to all intents and purposes, the Fisheries Act prohibition against depositing deleterious substances into fish-bearing waters applies wholesale, absent the existence of a bilateral agreement with the federal government for creating an equivalent regulatory framework to the waste-water systems effluent regulations. This means that whatever pollution safeguards and monitoring mechanisms exist today in the north by virtue of a bilateral agreement with the federal government would be thrown into question if this bill passes.
There are many examples of how proposed measures like those in Bill C-269 that are intuitively appealing at first glance are, upon deeper reflection, clearly not the best way forward for either the environment or human health. As a case in point, I would like to refer to the late Dr. David Schindler's work at the Experimental Lakes Area, a real-life freshwater laboratory that garnered a great deal of national attention a few years back when the Harper government tried to close it down.
The conventional wisdom at one point was that nitrogen from waste water was likely causing algal blooms in lakes, suggesting the need for multi-billion dollar investments to alter waste-water treatment plants. However, a 37-year real-time, real-life experiment at the Experimental Lakes Area found that this was not the case and that the culprit was rather phosphorous. This subsequently led to the elimination of phosphates in detergents and avoided massively expensive yet futile investments to upgrade waste-water treatment plants across the country to deal with nitrogen.
In the end, I regret to say that, in reality, this bill may well be more a public relations exercise on a subject that deserves much more serious and well-informed attention.