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Speech at 2nd Reading of Bill S-229 - Respecting Underground Infrastructure Safety Act (Call Before You Dig)

Underground Infrastructure Safety Enhancement Bill

Second Reading—Debate Continued

Senator Plett: I rise to speak to Bill S-229, an Act respecting underground infrastructure safety, also known as "call before you dig."

Colleagues, we may find that if we dig down too far we will hit ice, as it appears that hell is most certainly freezing over: Senator Mitchell and I are agreeing once again on a bill before this chamber.

I am the critic of Bill S-229. However, I am supportive of the initiative and commend Senator Mitchell for bringing it forward.

As someone who has spent a great deal of my career digging trenches, I personally have been responsible for digging up utility lines and am therefore well aware of the impact it can have on the surrounding area, and the large geographic area that can be affected by a single incident.

Let me just explain what happened to me some 40 years ago as I was digging a trench and putting in a gas line in a community by the name of Mitchell, out in southeastern Manitoba. I was digging a trench down about three and a half feet and I hit something. I had to tug and tug and tug, thinking it was the root of a tree, and after enough tugging and pulling I pulled up a telephone line that was about an inch and a quarter thick. Knowing that I had done some severe damage, I went into the home that I was working at — they still had telephone service — and I called the Manitoba Telephone System and said, "I have hit a telephone line," and they said, "Yes, we are well aware of that. You have taken the telephones out in most of southeastern Manitoba." It hadn't hit the house I was in, though. That line was still intact. So they said they would send people down to look at the damage I had done. It would take a couple of hours for them to get some repair people out there and start splicing this cable.

Being the type of employee I was, I thought, "Well, we shouldn't waste money and time here with me sitting around so I should continue my work. I had done the damage and I should continue." So, I got back on the backhoe and I started digging and, after about 10 minutes, lo and behold, up came another line. It was a smaller one. I went back into house to phone MTS again and now that house's phone was out, as was the rest of that village.

I know well the implications of not calling, and it was explained to me by the telephone repair people when they came out that, "Even if you didn't call, that post over there and that post over there should have indicated to you that there is probably a line over here."

Even though we have these lines marked many times we should make sure that we do call before we dig.

This "call before you dig" issue captured the attention of many senators several years ago when the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources undertook a study on the dangerous transportation of goods. After a few witnesses raised this issue and the need for action, the committee subsequently undertook a study on notification systems and published a report entitled Digging Safely: One-call Notification Systems and the Prevention of Damage to Canada's Buried Infrastructure.

The committee found that:

The risk of damage to buried infrastructure by uncontrolled excavation is a daily public safety concern across Canada, and is the leading cause of damage to buried infrastructure.

The report makes clear that many jurisdictions have already discovered this, and that the risks and costs associated with digging are entirely preventable if we implement a comprehensive excavation safety system.

One-call centres are already in existence. They are largely non-profit entities created by utilities that make it easier for excavators to contact owners and/or operators of underground infrastructure before digging. The idea is that instead of calling numerous utilities that could have operations under a work site, the excavator makes a single call to a one-call centre, which then facilitates the line locating services from multiple registered utilities.

The statistics in this report are staggering, noting thousands upon thousands of incidents of damage to buried infrastructure in Canada that could have been preventable if the appropriate calls had been made.

Currently, not all provinces have a one-call centre available. The bigger issue is that, even in the provinces that have a one-call centre for utilities, the call is not mandatory, except in the province of Ontario. And for oil and gas pipelines, it is only mandatory in British Columbia and Alberta.

Further to that, in Ontario, utilities on federal lands are not subject to provincial law to register with the province's one-call centre.

I spoke to my son by telephone yesterday in Landmark, and I asked him about Manitoba. He said that yes, Manitoba does, in fact, have a one-call centre, but as we and Senator Mitchell have suggested, it is not mandatory.

The utilities say there is a certain amount of liability placed on you if you hit a line and you haven't made the call, but, of course, that would mean long, dragged-out court cases and the damage would be done, in any event.

To clarify, legally, there is a requirement for excavators to identify the location of buried infrastructure on work sites but there is no legal requirement to actually contact the one-call centre. This is in stark contrast to the one-call national system in the United States, which was an early adopter of this notification system. All states have at least one one-call centre, and it is required by law that excavators contact one-call centres before digging.

As honourable senators know, I also have before this chamber a different bill concerning the construction industry: Bill S-224, the Canada Prompt Payment Bill.

The multi-jurisdictional nature of construction work in Canada makes for some similarities between the two bills, both in terms of scope and limitations. Like the Prompt Payment Bill, Senator Mitchell has two major goals in bringing this federal legislation forward. First, we are able to impact the fraction of construction work done on federal land directly. Second, and as important, we are sending a strong message to the provinces that they too need to ensure there is a comprehensive system in place.

Also, like prompt payment, Canada is behind the game on this issue. Many countries, including virtually all jurisdictions in the United States, including all states and the federal government, have enacted both prompt payment and call-before-you-dig legislation. In fact, all 50 states and the federal government participate fully in a coordinated national call-before-you-dig system.

Both issues require a national strategy and a comprehensive system, and these are two major steps forward. We need to show our contractors and construction workers and, subsequently, all Canadians impacted by construction work that we are hearing their concerns and doing everything in our power to improve our current systems.

I have some initial concerns with the grant provisions or the funding agreements from the federal government to the provinces. At first glance, I'm not sure this provision is necessary, but I am certainly willing to listen to the arguments and look forward to the study of this legislation at committee.

I will be supporting this bill and I urge all honourable senators to do the same.

On that note, as I said, legislation like this and the Prompt Payment Bill are non-partisan issues that affect all Canadians. I truly hope that senators in this chamber will not do to this bill what has been done to the Prompt Payment Bill, which has been stalled here for seven months and is adjourned again, at the expense of Canadians.

I hope, instead, that we will act responsibly and move both bills forward in a timely manner.


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