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In pursuit of common ground: Senator Mitchell
In pursuit of common ground: Senator Mitchell
March 17, 2016
OPINION
Image of Grant Mitchell
Grant Mitchell, Alberta

Senator Grant Mitchell will soon introduce a bill to protect underground infrastructure. He recently spoke about his efforts to an audience of 1,000 people at a Common Ground Alliance convention in Nevada.  

There’s an invisible world beneath your feet.

Electrical wiring, gas mains, cable, water — the sources of so many things we take for granted are buried just a few feet underground.

But it might surprise you to know that in Canada there’s no reliable source of information for where all this stuff is. In fact there’s only one province — Ontario — that has addressed this issue with legislation.

That’s a problem. Whether you’re a construction worker excavating a foundation or a homeowner building a backyard barbecue pit, it’s crucial to know where you can safely dig.

Accidentally sever a cable line and you won’t be the most popular person on your block — but accidentally slice into a gas or electrical line and you have a very dangerous situation on your hands.

That’s why I’m introducing a bill on underground infrastructure safety. It might not make the front page of the New York Times, but I do know this: my bill will save a lot of people a lot of money and aggravation.

It could even save lives.

The bill has three main parts.

The first section requires owners and operators of underground infrastructure that is federally regulated or on federal land to register and provide information about that infrastructure with a notification centre.

The second part says anyone planning to dig must make what’s called a ‘locate request’ to the relevant notification centre.

Finally, the third part says that owners and operators must mark out their underground infrastructure on the ground and co-ordinate with the would-be diggers.

At the end of the day, it’s just common sense. But if that’s not incentive enough, my bill provides for steep fines for people or companies who don’t comply.

It’s funny how these ideas come about. Some time ago the Senate’s energy committee was doing a study on petroleum products. At a meeting in Calgary, I was chatting with an executive who mentioned that what’s known as ‘Call Before You Dig’ legislation exists only in one province.

Then, at another meeting 3,000 kilometers away, another executive told me the exact same thing.

Now this really had my attention, and I started to figure out how get something done.

The Canadian Common Ground Alliance describes itself as Canada’s damage prevention voice; they’ve developed a number of best practises from excavators, road builders, insurers, and utilities workers, to name but a few.

They were a great help in drafting this legislation and they helped us pass our first obstacle — the fact that most underground infrastructure comes under provincial regulation.

But — and this was our breakthrough — there is a good deal of federal jurisdiction that affects underground infrastructure over things and places like pipelines, military bases, railways, Crown lands and parks.

With a strong, sensible federal statute in place, it will be easier for provinces to create their own Call Before You Dig legislation to fill in the legislative gaps.

That’s good for everyone.

I’m hoping that a Cabinet minister will take this bill over so it can speed through Parliament with the weight of the government behind it. But I’ll do my part to convince my fellow Honourable Senators to get behind this important initiative.

Together with the Canadian Common Ground Alliance, we have the people and the passion to lay the groundwork for the national damage prevention network we need.