338 QUÉBEC MUNICIPALITIES CALL ON PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT FOR GREATER PROTECTION OF DRINKING WATER
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By Cori Marshall
Québec municipalities are looking for better protection for their drinking water. Over the weekend representatives from 338 municipalities around the province met to send a message to provincial government to protect water from resource extraction, and are ready to take legal action.
We spoke with Scott Pearce, Mayor of the Township of Gore, who was not present at the meeting though is very active on the file.
Pearce explained that "in all our MRCs (Municipalité régionale de comté) we pass laws for environmental protection and planning well development in our region." The problem is "the government comes and basically cuts our legs out, and starts to allow [projects] that we wouldn't allow under our protections."
Bill 122, an Act mainly to recognize that municipalities are local governments and to increase their autonomy and powers, was assented to on June 16, 2017. The legislation expands the powers of municipal governments in areas such as urban planning, and zoning, and grants powers of general taxation.
Though Québec recognizes the role and powers of local government, Pearce said that "when it suits the [provincial] government they start to impose things."
A major issue is the distance from sources of drinking water resource companies are permitted to drill. "Most Mayors would like the protection zone to 2 kilometres," Pearce said, "that means no drilling, no shale gas within 2 km of a drinking source or a river."
Pearce underlined that the Québec government is "trying to lower that distance down to 400 metres, which to [the municipalities] is completely unacceptable."
"Bureaucrats in Québec City allow projects, and they couldn't even find my town on the map," Pearce said adding, "most municipalities want full control of environmental issues."
An example is that Gore is currently involved in a lawsuit against a resource company because during their drilling operations "from what our professionals have told us is they hit the water table" Pearce said. "The government of Québec has been helping [the company] if anything they've hurt us in this whole debate."
The case in question won't see the inside of a courtroom before next year. In the meantime, the company "will make millions destroying the environment of my community," Pearce said, and if the company is found to be in the wrong "at the end of the day, the government is going to fine them $6 thousand." This raises an important question "why would you care about the environment when you can make a fortune and pay a $6 thousand fine."
There is a feeling that the provincial government is rubber stamping resource extraction projects. Pearce said that the Minister of Environment in Québec "tends to be working to allow projects rather than helping municipalities protect the environment." From his point of view, the frustration is shared in other municipalities and by specialists.
Pearce believes that "climate change is the worst thing that has happened to municipalities." He doesn't mean climatic shifts, he means the way the government has reacted. "What they do is talk about climate change, that's all they do, when it comes to water and air they don't seem to be interested whatsoever."
When asked what the next step is, Pearce responded "the problem is we don't really have far that we can go." He added, "there can be lawsuits, that is going to cost taxpayers money out of the municipal budgets." If the municipalities pursue the provincial government, the same citizens that contribute to municipal budgets pay provincial tax, in the end, the money will come from their pockets.
Environmental lawsuits seem to be all the rage. After reporting on the $96 million lawsuit facing Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, WaterToday contacted ministries of Justice, Attorney General, and Environment as well as municipal associations in each province. What we found was that provincial departments do not track how many municipalities are being sued.
WaterToday asked Pearce if that information should, at the very least, be tracked? It isn't tracking that Pearce is looking for, in cases where municipalities are facing lawsuits "the government should help us."
There is a disconnect between two levels of government in Québec. On the one hand, the provincial government believes that it is doing the best it can to protect the environment while at the same time stimulating economic growth. On the other, municipalities are fighting to protect a resource no one can live without.
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