Friday, December 15, 2017

A look at two perspectives on Victoria’s sewage controversy

June 19, 2015 by Keagan Hawthorne, contributing writer

On Tuesday, May 12, a formal debate on the subject of sewage was held at Camosun’s Lansdowne campus. But it’s nothing new: Victoria’s sewage controversy has been stewing for nearly two decades.

The last few years have seen things intensify, with plans, counter-plans, and failed proposals stacking up at the Capital Regional District (CRD) to the tune of around $40 million dollars already, according to a CRD spokesperson, and not a shovel has broken ground on the project.

A brief history

In 2006, ahead of the Winter Olympics and responding to years of quiet grumbling from Washington state, Ottawa, and mounting public opinion that pumping raw sewage into the ocean was giving Victoria an environmental black eye, the Gordon Campbell government ordered the CRD to come up with a wastewater management plan.

One strategy after another was devised, revised, and set aside, without being able to answer where and how the sewage should be dealt with.

A recent debate about sewage issues was held at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus (photo provided).

A recent debate about sewage issues was held at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus (photo provided).

In 2012 the CRD established Seaterra, a non-political governance body, to deal with the problem. Seaterra received funding commitments from Ottawa and the provincial government to build a large land-based treatment facility. Eventually they settled on McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt as the location for the treatment plant. But in 2014 the municipality of Esquimalt, a long-time opponent of the idea, scuttled the plan once and for all by refusing the rezoning needed to build the plant.

With the McLoughlin Point plan dead in the water, the CRD has split the task up between the “Eastside” municipalities (Oak Bay, Saanich, and Victoria) and the “Westside” municipalities (Langford, Colwood, Esquimalt, View Royal, and the Songhees Nation). Each group will come up with an independent solution to deal with sewage.

The issue remains divisive. A number of groups claim the current system of deep-sea outflows work fine to disperse waste and that there is no need to spend more money. The CRD continues to fund Seaterra and its consultants (Seaterra’s average monthly costs are $114,000). Civil engineers, biologists, and economists debate secondary versus tertiary treatment, distributed versus centralized plants, and energy recovery versus solid waste fertilizer. With so much money on the line, tensions are high.

And every day, Victoria pumps another 82 million litres of sewage into the ocean.

The distributed-tertiary-treatment perspective

Tom Maler, who advocates for sewage treatment with the RITE Plan campaign, believes that the most efficient method would be a number of small plants distributed throughout the city.

“Smaller plants can deal with the sewage in the different neighbourhoods where it’s created,” he says. “This requires less infrastructure, because it would basically join on to the existing network of the sewage mains.”

Tertiary treatment involves separating the solids and the sludge from the sewage and filtering the effluent through 0.04-micron filters. The water is then disinfected with a combination of UV and hydrogen peroxide, destroying 99 percent of bacteria and most of the harmful chemicals found in sewage.

The leftover sludge would be dehydrated and gasified. This produces a thin gas that could be burned to generate electricity. Only clean water and an inert slag is left at the end of the process. Some of the slag is in the form of charcoal, which could be used in the tertiary filtering process, closing the loop on some of the treatment process.

There is some opposition to the idea of neighbourhood sewage plants, but Maler believes the technology exists to treat sewage in a low-impact way.

“In the big picture these small plants will be more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable,” he says.

And he thinks the public is beginning to agree. But there are still obstacles to getting the planning committees to approve this method. The biggest obstacle, says Maler, is making a final decision on the “how” before more time is wasted on the “where.”

“It is a lot more important to talk about the principles first,” he says, “and then decide on sites that could accommodate those technical principles. I think this discussing sites before we have decided on technology is putting the cart before the horse. If you decide on the technology, it right away eliminates a whole bunch of sites.”

The no-need perspective

Shaun Peck, who was a public health consultant and medical health officer for the CRD from 1989 to 1995, is a vocal opponent of the plan to build any land-based sewage treatment facility. In Peck’s opinion, the decision to build a sewage treatment plant is not motivated by science.

“Since about 1992 I’ve supported what the marine scientists have said, which is that the current deep-sea outflows do an amazing job in dealing with sewage effluent. We’ve got two outflows 1.2 and 1 kilometre out into the ocean. They’re 60 metres below the surface of the sea, there’s a 200-metre diffuser at the end of them, and you can’t detect the plume after about 400 metres.”

Peck admits there is an impact on the marine environment, but contends that the impact is minimal. “Based on a dozen marine scientists and six public health officials, there’s no evidence that the current practice is having any measurable health effect,” he says. “The effect on the marine environment is minimal.”

Peck calls it “tragic” that so much public money has been spent with nothing to show for it, and he wants the project stopped. Victoria could challenge federal regulations, which other provinces have done, and ask the province for a special permit based on the “unique receiving environment” into which our sewage flows, he says.

The problem, as he sees it, is political.

“Let’s talk about need and want,” he says, “because there’s a lot of difference between the two. It’s not needed. But whether it’s wanted or not is up to the public to decide. What I stand for is the best available scientific data and the best public health opinion. If the politicians decide they want to do it, okay. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a political decision from the beginning.”

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