Senator Plett's Speech at the Second Reading of Bill S-5

Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill S-5, known by its short title as the strengthening environmental protection for a healthier Canada act.

Our colleague Senator Kutcher, the sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the long title is a mouthful, so I will take his lead and just refer to it as Bill S-5.

Given what we have been through these last two years, it is hard to imagine anyone being opposed to legislation or anything else that looks to provide all Canadians with as healthy an environment as possible. Health is at the forefront of all our minds and will be for some time to come.

Protecting the environment has always been at the forefront for Conservatives. After all, it was Brian Mulroney — voted Canada’s greenest prime minister — who took strong and successful action to stop the acid rain problem. Successfully navigating that issue was no small achievement at the time.

However, if the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated anything, it was the limits of governments to deliver on such promises as the right to a healthy environment. Yet this is what the government has, with great fanfare, made a cornerstone of this bill.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the effort, but we all know there are limits to what the government can do to protect that right — limits that stem from environmental threats beyond their control, obviously, but also from government ineptness, which has been a hallmark of this NDP-Liberal government in particular. Their handling of the pandemic is a good example. No government should have been better prepared to deal with a pandemic, given our experience with SARS and H1N1. But still, we were totally unprepared.

Not only were we unprepared, but the NDP-Liberal government’s actions in the year leading up to the pandemic made things worse by closing down three of our emergency stockpile warehouses and throwing out millions of items of PPE that could have been used to deal with the first-wave surge, effectively shutting down our world-renowned infectious disease early warning system in the six months prior to the outbreak and sidelining scientists at the Public Health Agency in favour of administrators.

I don’t want to belabour the point, but suffice it to say that while we all support Canadians having the right to a healthy environment, I am less than confident that this government can deliver on that promise.

Remember, too, that the right to a healthy environment, as recognized in Bill S-5, is not a legal right like a Charter right. It is entirely confined to areas under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA. It remains to be seen what exactly is accomplished by recognizing this right in the legislation.

I am not arguing against it. I am just somewhat worried that the government is claiming more by it than is justified, that there is less here than meets the eye, but that can be sorted out at committee.

Honourable senators, as Senator Kutcher informed you, this is the first time that the Canadian Environmental Protection Act has been updated since 1999 — so, it has been more than 20 years. Again, it is hard for me not to look at this through the prism of the pandemic where we — this government, in particular — clearly let our guard down in the 20 years that have passed since the SARS report that, in fact, established the Public Health Agency.

It is hard to argue with finally updating CEPA after 20 years. From what I have seen, most stakeholders agree. Many of you, like me, have probably heard from some of them. Stakeholders like the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada support the bill as a good way to address the shortcomings in CEPA. Cosmetics Alliance Canada supports it as well, as long as decision making continues to be based on sound science and risk assessment.

Furthermore, they wrote in their letter in support of the bill that they believe it is important to review any and all regulatory frameworks from time to time. That is good advice, and taking a look at the entire regulatory framework will hopefully be a by‑product of our study of the legislation when it gets referred to committee. However, what they didn’t support were amendments to the legislation that do not have the support of all the stakeholders, most of whom, from what I gather, were consulted in the preparation of this legislation.

Honourable senators, this bill is really a housekeeping bill. It deals with regulatory modernization and is not in any real sense an expansion of environmental protection in spite of what the government has freighted on to it. For instance, there is nothing wrong with specifically singling out vulnerable Canadians for mention in the right to a healthy environment, but even if they were not specifically mentioned, they would have that right by virtue of simply being Canadian. But this government cannot resist any and all opportunities to signal its own high virtue. That is not always in the best interests of science.

Honourable senators will recall that the government allowed virtue signalling to get in the way of science when it refused to ban foreign flights from China in the early days of the pandemic, calling it racism. Yet the SARS report was clear that “. . . travel plays a pivotal role in the rapid dissemination of disease.”

In fact, the science on this was well established even before SARS, but the government that supposedly follows the science, as they like to tell us, ignored that.

So while the bill ticks off the usual boxes for virtue signalling to the NDP-Liberal government, it does not address the environmental committee recommendations around national standards for clean air or clean water.

Honourable senators, we cannot let the science get sidelined or hijacked by activist causes. The danger from toxic substances is real. Senator Kutcher, in his speech, provided us with two stark examples of the damage done to a community by toxic chemicals: one in Japan and the other in Grassy Narrows in northwestern Ontario. In both instances the cause was mercury dumped into the water, and the results were tragic.

There are other well-known instances of toxic chemicals wreaking havoc that I will mention. We have all heard of the Love Canal, an abandoned waterway in New York State, into which the Hooker Chemical Company dumped 21,000 tons of chemical waste in the 1950s. Twenty years later, in 1976, the canal overflowed its banks and the chemicals made their way into the developed area in the surrounding neighbourhood. Area residents began to report children suffering from chemical burns, foul odours, including nausea, undrinkable water and black sludge due to the resurfaced chemicals. One local resident, the president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, began to mobilize public attention, organizing petitions, protests and speeches, culminating in the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The New York State health commissioner declared a public health emergency. He sought to relocate particularly vulnerable pregnant women and children out of the area.

In 1978, he published a report entitled Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb describing Love Canal as a modern-day disaster, both profound and devastating. The governor of the state of the New York, Hugh Carey, in the midst of an election, got involved and agreed to relocate 239 families living close to the canal.

Not long after, President Jimmy Carter declared an emergency in the area. The Love Canal incident galvanized U.S. public opinion about hazardous waste sites that persist to this day. Billions of dollars have been spent to clean up abandoned waste sites, all galvanized by the Love Canal.

Similarly, in the late 1980s the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental think tank, concluded that the continued use of Alar, a pesticide long used on apples, would cause cancer in 1 out of every 4,200 preschool children. That finding made its way on to the news show “60 Minutes,” whose host Ed Bradley called Alar the most potent cancer-causing chemical in our food supply.

Celebrities like Meryl Streep became involved, as did an activist group called Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits. The demand for apples plummeted, and they were removed from store shelves and widely banned in schools.

The problem with both Alar and the Love Canal story is that the dangers were non-existent in both cases, or at the very least vastly overexaggerated. In the Alar case, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, estimated the risk for preschoolers not to be 1 in 4,200 but in fact 1 in 111,000. In the Love Canal case, peer-reviewed follow-up studies conducted by the New York State Department of Health uncovered no abnormal health trends in Love Canal residents.

This finding was later supported by analyses done by the American Medical Association, the National Research Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, an exhaustive study by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 found no evidence of environmental contamination at the Love Canal. But in both instances, the science and politicians were overwhelmed by an activist-led outcry that caused great social panic and cascaded into real-world consequences with no basis in fact.

Honourable senators, I say this neither to undermine Senator Kutcher’s very legitimate examples of the damage that can be done nor to undermine Bill S-5. I say this to you to underscore the complexity of the issue we are facing, the need for, as the cosmetics association said, decision making to be based on sound science and risk assessment, not on activism, and to urge the committee that studies this bill to undertake a thorough and careful study of all the issues involved and to bring all the stakeholders to the table.

Colleagues, the Conservative caucus supports this bill going to committee for extensive study, and I also support it at second reading. Thank you, honourable senators.

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