Speeches | Senate energy report makes recommendations to protect underground infrastructure

16 December 2014

Hon. Grant Mitchell: I know we have just 15 minutes here, honourable senators, so I thought I'd take that time to speak about something that's very important, a real accomplishment by the Senate generally, specifically by the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. I congratulate each of the members of that committee and certainly its chair, Senator Neufeld, on the preparation and finalization of one of our latest reports called Digging Safely: One-Call Notification Systems and the Prevention of Damage to Canada's Buried Infrastructure.

To those of us who understand how significant that title is and what it embodies, this is a very exciting and important report. It addresses the issue of the damage that is done inadvertently, generally in construction work but sometimes by homeowners like each of us digging in the backyard to put in a new fence post, the kind of damage that can be done to underground infrastructure.

What we hear about most, of course, is damage to oil and gas pipelines, but much other infrastructure is vulnerable to inappropriate excavation activities and the failure to ask for location services so an excavator knows when they're about to dig where they shouldn't be digging. That's what this report addresses — how to do that better and make it better at a national level.

It's interesting to note that the idea for this report came quite fortuitously out of an earlier report by this committee and witness testimony, a national energy strategy report presented in 2012. In the process of doing that, in meetings we held in Calgary and Sarnia independently, two senior executives of two separate companies mentioned that generally across this country there is no legislation requiring, mandating that there be a notification system in each province, each jurisdiction, for excavators to approach to get notification, to notify that they're digging and to find out where there might be underground infrastructure that needs to be avoided. There is no mandatory penalty in almost any jurisdiction. In fact, it was only in Ontario that a bill, Bill 8, had recently been passed where that kind of legislation existed. We heard that in two places, and it began to make us think.

I have to give credit to a member of my staff, Kyle Johnston, who at his own initiative followed up with an organization called the Common Ground Alliance and found out that this is a national concern and a national problem.

Damage to underground infrastructure takes a huge toll in many respects. It certainly takes a financial toll. It takes a social toll in some senses because, depending on what infrastructure is damaged, it can cause dislocation of residences and businesses. It can disrupt businesses. It can also cause tremendous injury and even death in certain cases, and it is a burden on resources that don't need to be burdened. It often requires first responders to appear for something that could have been avoided. And, of course, there's the cost in repairing whatever has been damaged because of inappropriate excavation processes and techniques.

It's hard to get actual figures because we've yet to standardize proper reporting in this country. However, to give you examples of the magnitude, in 2012 there were 5,149 third party excavating damages to natural gas pipeline systems in Canada, largely in a province like Alberta. Given what we know about the process of notification, if it's done properly, about half of those could have been avoided if we had had a proper "call before you dig" system in place. That's really what this bill talks about, but I'll get into it in a little further detail.

To give you a further idea, we have started to get better and more consistent data in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. In 2013 there were 7,264 damage incidents to buried infrastructure in those three provinces, and that translates to 29 damage incidents for every single business day. There was an estimation made by one witness that that was about $37 million of damage in Ontario alone. That's to repair the damaged underground infrastructure. That's not to mention the first responders. That's not to mention the dislocation of households and businesses. It's not to mention the disruption of households and businesses. It's also not to mention the fact that if it is a telephone line, computer line or fibre optics line is hit, in fact 9-1-1 services could be down. So there's tremendous risk in not doing this properly.

The good news is that a company in this country called the Common Ground Alliance is working extremely hard to try to build a national profile, a national presence for dealing with excavation and protecting underground infrastructure much more effectively.

The model that was established initially was really a U.S. model, but it has been embodied largely in the Ontario bill, which is just now coming into force. That bill was presented by Conservative MPP Robert Bailey from Sarnia—Lambton. Ultimately, even though he was in opposition, he was able to gain the support of all parties, and he brought in an excellent bill.

Other people have been instrumental in our study and in the development of this process and enhancing it in Canada. They are Jim Tweedie and Paula Dunlop from the Canadian Gas Association. Jim Tweedie was also a former President of the Common Ground Alliance. There is also Mike Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Common Ground Alliance; and Bob Kipp, Executive Director of the U.S. counterpart of the Common Ground Alliance.

In the U.S., there is a national one-call system broken down by states largely, but across the entire U.S., they have a very standardized and effective one-call system. In fact, it has been so effective, they have statistics that indicate that from about 2005, there were 700,000 damage incidents in the U.S. By the time they got their process in place last year, it was cut to less than half, to about 300,000.

The Canadian Common Ground Alliance looks at a number of areas of where this process of location and excavation can be improved.

First of all, they argue — and we agree — that they need a one-call system across the country. It's now becoming a one-click system because a lot of it can be done online. We need to have owners' participation, the organizations that own the underground infrastructure. We need to have proper information on the location of underground infrastructure. We need to have best practices. We need to have mandatory participation of all those owners of underground infrastructure and mandatory penalties for excavators who don't call. And we need to look at technology as well.

Our study took those issues and came up with four recommendations that I will highlight: one, that the federal government reference the CSA Z247 standard for protection and prevention of damage to buried infrastructure in all relevant federal legislation and encourage provinces and territories to do the same; two, that buried facilities on federal land be registered with the provincial or territorial one-call service and that the federal government require anyone undertaking construction or excavation on federal land to call a one-call service where one exists; three, that the federal government require all owners of federally-regulated buried infrastructure to become members of a provincial or territorial one-call service where one exists; and four, that the federal government introduce a conditional provincial-territorial grant dependent on the adoption of legislation requiring the mandatory participation of all owners and/or operators of underground facilities and excavators in a prescribed one-call service. The grant would be available to assist one-call centres with training, innovation, education and public awareness. The U.S. has a grant like this, which is simply $45,000 a year to any jurisdiction or state that does what's asked for. It doesn't have to be expensive. It can save millions of dollars and can reduce risk of injury and death as well as social and economic disruption.

There are those who were concerned originally about whether this is a federal jurisdiction. The federal government has a great deal of moral suasion, but we also have jurisdiction in ways that make this very relevant for us. The CRTC supervises underground infrastructure but might need legislative changes to give them more authority over that in this context. Railway falls under the federal area. Parks, often First Nations' lands, National Energy Board regulated facilities, military bases, military facilities and other kinds of federal lands and buildings. And as I say, we have moral suasion.

This report addresses a specific and concrete problem. The report has great potential for giving momentum to the work of these wonderful people, the Canadian Common Ground Alliance. They are largely volunteers from a variety of stakeholder industries, the owners of infrastructure, the construction associations, provincial and municipal infrastructure ownership and the federal government, as I pointed out. They are bringing people together to try to build this.

There are one-call centres in six provinces today, but except for Ontario, there isn't in any other jurisdiction the kind of legislation that we need to make membership mandatory; to make information gathering structured and mandatory; to make location services, technologies and techniques structured and consistent; and to get best practices. So when it does come to digging after you've called or clicked, you're digging properly and you're not making mistakes because of outdated or irresponsible digging practices.

I commend this report to all senators, and I leave it to my colleague, the chair, to take the next step.

Hon. Richard Neufeld: I move the adoption of the report.

The Hon. the Speaker: It is moved by the Honourable Senator Neufeld, seconded by the Honourable Senator Mitchell, that the ninth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, entitled Digging Safely: One-Call Notification Systems and the Prevention of Damage to Canada's Buried Infrastructure, tabled in the Senate on December 3, 2014, be adopted by the Senate.

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

(Motion agreed to and report adopted.)

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