Mr. Speaker, first of all, I must say that the Bloc Québécois welcomes the Conservatives' desire to engage in a debate on water quality and the pollution of our rivers.
At first glance, it might be surprising to see the Conservatives interested in the issue of water pollution. Let us not forget that, during the last campaign, they promised to take action on the dumping of waste water in waterways.
It must be said that the Conservatives happily rode the wave of Montreal's “flushgate”, when the city was forced, in 2015, to dump eight billion litres of waste water into the St. Lawrence.
It was probably to fulfill this promise that the former Conservative leader, the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, introduced Bill C‑269. Again, we welcome the Conservatives' willingness to look at ways to reduce water pollution.
It is true that the debate on Bill C‑269 is an opportunity to draw attention to an important environmental issue: the problem of sewage being discharged into our waterways. This is not the first time the Conservatives have focused on this issue.
I would like to return briefly to the promises around sewage treatment and, in turn, federal inaction on this issue.
In fact, in July 2012, Stephen Harper's government enacted the wastewater systems effluent regulations. This was the first Canadian standard for sewage treatment.
At the time, the federal government estimated that 75% of existing waste water facilities met the new standard. For the remaining 25%, the government promised to provide funding to help them comply, and it established three categories of facilities.
The first category includes the highest risk facilities, which must comply with the new standard by 2020. The second and third categories are those facilities that pose less of a risk and have until 2030, as is the case for Montreal, or 2040 to comply with the new standard.
The then minister of transport, infrastructure and communities, Denis Lebel, promised that Ottawa would invest for the long term and would work in partnership with the provinces. For its part, the Union des municipalités du Québec estimated that it would take $9 billion to upgrade municipal facilities in order to bring them into compliance with the new federal regulations. That was in 2012.
According to a recent Réseau Environnement report, it will actually cost at least $17 billion just to upgrade the existing treatment facilities, which are beginning to show their age.
This amount does not include waste-water treatment plants that do not comply with federal regulations, nor does it include the investments required to build treatment plants in municipalities that do not have any. In March, Le Devoir reported that 80 Quebec municipalities still do not have waste-water treatment plants.
Ten municipalities in the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspé region, the region I represent, still do not have treatment plants at the outlet of their sewer systems. It is 2021. That is unbelievable. This is a serious, ongoing problem, but the federal government is slow to get involved financially.
Sewage spills happen frequently in Quebec, I am sad to say. The Fondation Rivières counted more than 60,000 spills in 2019, which added up to a total of over 470,000 hours of sewage flow into Quebec rivers and streams. The water pollution problems do not stop there.
The most recent research has brought to light the adverse health effects of endocrine disruptors in water. When these chemicals are present in the environment, they can enter the bodies of animals and humans, interact with their hormones and affect all systems in the body.
This is often harmful for both animals and humans. Even small quantities of these substances in the environment can have a significant impact. The adverse effects of endocrine disruptors have been observed in fish and mollusks in the St. Lawrence River, as well as in amphibians in rivers in southern Quebec.
Many scientists agree that endocrine disruptors are a contributing factor in certain cancers and can cause reproductive issues in humans, though few studies have been conducted in this area.
Research is currently focusing on the endocrine disruptive potential of several chemicals, such as parabens, polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticides.
The presence of microplastics is another problem that demonstrates the importance of addressing waste-water discharge into our rivers and streams.
Scientists at McGill University published a study in 2020 in the well-respected journal Environmental Pollution that found that microplastic pollution in the St. Lawrence River is of the same order of magnitude as that measured in waterways near densely populated cities in China. The researchers found, on average, 832 particles of plastic per kilogram dry weight of sediment. That is four times higher than the levels found by another team in the Ottawa River a few years ago. This finding places the St. Lawrence among the worst waterways analyzed to date. One of the problems is that microplastics linger in the environment for a long time. Since they remain in the sediment, many organisms are at risk of ingesting them and passing them up the food chain.
In short, all of this data about endocrine disruptors and the presence of microplastics shows that there is a a significant and disturbing amount of pollution in our waterways as a result of sewage spills, and we must do something about it.
Let us get back to Bill C‑269. Unfortunately, this bill does not contain a solution to the problem of sewage spills. Why not? Because it is inconsistent. It will still allow certain hazardous materials to be discharged. In short, Bill C‑269 is not as good as it looks.
It is true that, to reduce water pollution, we need effective regulations to stop sewage from being released into the environment. However, this bill allows the discharge of certain “authorized” substances, including petroleum products such as oil, gasoline, diesel and grease, chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, fertilizer runoff and more.
Consequently, even if it were passed, Bill C‑269 would allow industry to discharge waste water contaminated with petroleum products from their facilities into our rivers, provided that the discharge complies with the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations. This means that waste water contaminated with chemicals like the ones I mentioned earlier would be allowed, but effluent from municipal waste-water systems would not. What will municipalities do then?
Montreal has been talking about building an ozonation plant to treat waste water for the past 15 years. The project was first announced by the Gérald Tremblay administration with a completion date in 2012, which was later pushed back to 2018. In 2019, Radio-Canada revealed that it should finally be completed in 2023 at a cost of half a billion dollars.
In February 2020, Valérie Plante's administration published a notice of interest for the construction of the plant. So far, however, there have been no developments. It is safe to say that the 2023 target may once again be postponed, but the City of Montreal has until 2030 to comply with existing federal regulations.
It is all well and good to draft regulations, but if a municipality is unable to build a water treatment plant because it simply cannot not afford it, what will the federal government do?
The solution for keeping sewage from polluting our waterways, including the St. Lawrence River, does not lie in arbitrary, unenforceable obligations or prohibitions. It lies in meaningful investments to help municipalities fulfill their waste-water treatment responsibilities.
The Bloc Québécois believes that, if we want to solve this problem together, we must demand that the federal government invest in waste-water treatment infrastructure through targeted, substantial, multi-year funding. Otherwise, neither municipalities nor Quebec will be able to fix the problem.
In conclusion, I will reiterate that the Bloc Québécois is in favour of having a debate on water quality and pollution in our rivers. We must admit that the debates on Bill C‑269 are drawing attention to this important environmental issue. However, for all of the reasons I mentioned, the Bloc Québécois will be voting against the bill.
Again, this bill does not contain a solution to the problem of sewage spills. The health of our waterways requires financial commitments that are not included in Bill C‑269. It requires a solid, long-term commitment on the part of the federal government. The government must invest heavily in municipal waste-water treatment infrastructure by means of appropriate transfers to Quebec and the provinces.