Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that Bill C-326 has moved past second reading and committee stage and is back in the House for third reading. Although the scope of the bill is narrower than what I had hoped as a result of the amendments proposed in committee, the fact remains that the bill is another important lever that will ensure greater transparency when establishing drinking water standards and that this process will look to the future, that is the study and control of emerging contaminants.
When developing and drafting the bill, I borrowed elements of the American system for drinking water. I use the term elements only because, in general, here in Canada we favour an approach to regulating drinking water that is a little different than that of the U.S. For example, we do not favour adopting uniform standards that are enforced by law across the country. Instead we use a regional approach, that is a provincial one, which in reality places greater importance on the efficient management of water purification plants than on attaining certain specific limits or thresholds for a large variety of water contaminants. In other words, our approach gives regulatory bodies greater flexibility.
Ironically, the stricter approach can make the work of plant operators more complex and can even be detrimental to the objective of ensuring quality drinking water. I sincerely believe in the Canadian model, which, according to the experts, is becoming more prevalent internationally for the regulation of drinking water.
That being said, the United States is actually being more proactive and transparent about studying and regulating drinking water contaminants, especially those known as emerging contaminants. The United States amended its Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986 and again in 1996 to give the U.S. EPA additional responsibilities regarding drinking water.
These amendments included the requirement that the U.S. EPA develop and manage a candidate contaminant list every five years. In other words, every five years, the EPA must select at least five contaminants from the candidate contaminant list and make decisions on whether to make regulations pertaining to them, in a process that is called regulatory determination. Moreover, the EPA is also now required to monitor at least 30 unregulated contaminants every five years. In the event that it decides that a new contaminant will be regulated, the EPA has two years following that decision to draft a regulation and an additional 18 months to finalize it. There is thus a well-structured, forward-looking and transparent process in place in the U.S. with respect to managing contaminants in drinking water in that country.
Publishing the candidate contaminant list is a key strength of the U.S. system. Making the list public enhances transparency regarding the future regulatory direction of the EPA. It provides important information that researchers can then use to make decisions, namely, regarding the contaminants for which they would want to collect primary data to inform the regulatory process. Moreover, this proactive approach spurs research and innovation, including in the area of water filtration processes.
In essence, Bill C-326, both in its original and current forms, aims to encourage that same kind of forward-looking and transparent approach. The amended version of Bill C-326 calls on the minister “to identify any foreign government or international agency that, in the Minister’s opinion, has standards or guidelines respecting the quality of drinking water that should be compared” to Canada’s. This determination, which until now has not been legally required, nor, to my knowledge, made public, if the minister has in fact considered such a comparison, will necessarily elicit questions from those with an interest in the quality of our drinking water, and questions, of course, are the very currency of accountability.
In other words, civil society, including NGOs and researchers, will be able to seek clarification and justification publicly through Order Paper questions, oral questions, correspondence to the minister or other means, of the minister’s decisions with regard to the agencies and/or countries she has chosen as a basis of comparison to Canada in regard to drinking water guidelines. Civil society will in turn be able to offer its own opinion as to the validity, or conversely, the lack of validity of the minister’s choices.
Furthermore, Bill C-326 requires the minister to identify which standards set by the chosen agencies or countries should be compared to the standards being developed in Canada. Again, civil society will get a chance to critique or support the minister’s choice. This will help us look ahead and look at other countries or international agencies that may have more stringent standards than ours, as well as at specific standards outside Canada that may be higher or stricter than ours.
This bill highlights gaps, and as budget analysts and scientific analysts both know, gaps are what stimulate reflection, research and corrective action.
I also hope that this bill—if passed—and the debate it has stimulated so far will spur the government to focus more on emerging contaminants in its Canadian Environmental Protection Act annual report.
In the interest of increasing transparency, promoting research and innovation, and ultimately improving human and environmental health, I ask the House to support this bill.