Victoria has faced decades of criticism for failing to treat its sewage before pumping it into the Pacific Ocean, releasing often-harmful materials into the marine ecosystem and food chain. Sewage from the “City of Gardens” has been a recurring theme in newspaper editorials on either side of the border, as some portray the city as an environmental laggard, while others point to an array of studies indicating that the current practice has a relatively small environmental impact.
Until recently, the Capital Regional District (CRD), the regional governance body responsible for sewage services for the Greater Victoria area, did not make sewage treatment a priority. The reason, ironically, is that the region is located in a uniquely dynamic marine zone. Fast-moving currents of the Juan de Fuca Straight combine effluent in a cool, biodiverse and oxygen-rich environment; all factors well suited to the efficient natural treatment of sewage. Nutrients are consumed by sea life, and for the most part, contaminants are diluted and dispersed, though the outfall area is considered contaminated and is off-limits for shellfish harvesting.
The effluent management practice currently in place consists of pumping sewage through six-millimetre screens, skimming off oil and grease, and then dispersing wastewater through two long outfall pipes located on the seabed. Additionally, the CRD has a source control policy, which has acted to significantly reduce the amount of contaminants from the sewage, such as mercury from dentist offices.
In 2006, the Province ordered the CRD to develop a sewage treatment plan after B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner rejected the then-planned “trigger process,” which would have monitored the outfall environment for early signs of adverse changes; then a prerequisite for moving ahead with sewage treatment.
Approved by Minister Penner on August 25, 2010, the new plan includes secondary treatment—which will remove some heavy metals and chemicals, along with viruses and bacteria. Two facilities will be constructed: a wastewater treatment facility on the coast, and a sludge digester at the landfill 18 kilometres inland, connected to each other by a 250-millimetre diameter sludge pipe.
Engineering firm Stantec Consulting Ltd. is acting as chief contractor on the project, overseeing development of the system, which by 2016 is expected to treat up to 40 billion litres of sewage yearly. The CRD estimates that this capacity will be met in 2030, at which time new treatment facilities will need to come online.
The project is expected to cost $782 million, with the cost split into thirds between the federal, provincial and local governments. The plan calls for resource recovery technology to capture heat, phosphates and other resources from the sewage—but the revenue will only recoup a small portion of operating costs.
Cost isn’t the only issue facing this project.
“The oceongraphic situation here makes the project unwise,” says Chris Garrett, former chair of the CRD’s Marine Monitoring Advisory Group—an independent panel of established scientists responsible for reviewing and analysing the regions wastewater practices. Garrett argues the triple bottom line (environment, social, economic) would be better served if the projected tax increase of $300 per household was put towards addressing better proven, more immediate environmental concerns—he suggests funding sewage treatment in communities where the need is quantifiably greater.
Jack Hull, the CRD’s interim project manager in charge of the sewage treatment plan, says that he has not been involved in the scientific research and that the plan is not looking to address the reasoning behind sewage treatment in Victoria. “We’re required to go ahead with secondary treatment,” says Hull. “We’ve been ordered by the Province, and we will need to comply with federal legislation in 2019. The issue is moot.”
B.C. environmental groups are widely supportive of sewage treatment in Victoria and do not portray the investment as a zero-sum game where environmental funding in one place would necessitate a lack of funding elsewhere. They stress a universal ethic of environmental responsibility, with sewage treatment being directly beneficial, but also contributing to the green ethic of cultural responsibility—taking ownership of society’s environmental detriments. In a letter to Victoria News, Colin Campbell, the marine campaign coordinator of the Sierra Club of BC, said, “While there are some scientists who dispute any threat to our ocean, there is plenty of evidence of harm…the ocean needs our help.”
Facing criticism from British Columbia’s marine science community over the move to secondary treatment, the CRD’s public outreach literature notes that “some current studies may have determined few detrimental effects to ocean mammals and marine colonies…[but] preliminary screening may not be adequate as our population grows and evolves.”
The Esquimalt location, an unused oil tank farm at the McLaughlin Point entrance to the picturesque Victoria Harbour, is near some of the highest-density areas of the region. Esquimalt Mayor Barbara Desjardins is concerned about odour and optics affecting residents, tourists, property values—and tax revenue. “This will be our opera house,” Desjardins quips, comparing the valuable real estate to that of the Sydney, Australia landmark. She says that locations to the west, across the Esquimalt Harbour in the less-established but fast growing community of Colwood, would be a more logical choice in the long-term.
Hull says that the Esquimalt site was deliberated over extensively and ultimately chosen because existing sewage infrastructure would reduce the cost of rerouting to a site further away from the more established areas around the downtown core. Hull says, “Odour control was once an issue, but is no longer; these facilities don’t smell anymore.”
Desjardins promises her office will do everything it can to stop this “bad plan,” and says she will meet with concerned residents, business groups and community associations throughout Esquimalt and the Victoria region to “build awareness” and pressure CRD politicians (who support the plan ten-to-three) to reconsider their collective position ahead of October’s municipal elections. As for the “opera house,” Jack Hull prefers to compare the site to Vancouver, where an open-air sewage plant is just underneath the Lions Gate Bridge to the west. “Cruise ships pass by there all the time.” WC
Brad Densmore is an intern with Water Canada.