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Wednesday
Mar162016

It’s time to exit the sewage-treatment swamp

Comment: It’s time to exit the sewage-treatment swamp

DAVID ANDERSON / TIMES COLONIST 
MARCH 16, 2016 12:44 AM

Whether you believe an on-land secondary treatment plant is needed in the capital region or whether you believe the University of Victoria and University of British Columbia scientists who have concluded it will likely have no appreciable net health or environmental benefits, there is one thing all residents of the Capital Region can agree on — the Capital Regional District process for arriving at a decision on this issue just isn’t working.

Two weeks ago, a Times Colonist editorial accurately described it as a “train wreck.” Since then, things have become worse. Despite hours and hours of meetings going over the details, last week, the members of the CRD wastewater committee were deadlocked in tied votes.

The mayors of Victoria, Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt are all working from the same information, but they are literally hundreds of millions of dollars apart in their understanding of the cost impacts of the choices they are facing. Rather than narrowing differences and developing a consensus around a common theme, based on detailed analysis and informed debate, the discussions at the wastewater committee have driven our municipal leaders further apart.

At this point in the saga, there is little point in further explanations from the committee members of their differing positions. The problem is more fundamental than their individual views. The CRD committee process has not worked. The wastewater committee has shown itself to be incapable of dealing with the problem it was assigned.

Last week, the provincial government offered to “facilitate” the process.

However, no one knows what this means. Apparently, it does not mean giving the CRD direction, i.e. telling the CRD what to do, or giving the CRD the power to overrule a municipal government’s zoning to achieve a CRD goal. Apparently it does mean providing the committee with more technical details.

However, the CRD has already spent about $70 million. There has been a veritable fountain of money for technical and engineering studies. If a lack of such studies is the problem, then the CRD committee, the CRD technical staff and the numerous consultants who advised on what studies were needed have let us down badly. The province is fooling itself (and trying to fool us) if it thinks more information on treatment technologies or plant location, or some rejigging of the terms of its financial contribution, will bring about harmony and agreement.

The fundamental problem that the committee members are well aware of is that the studies needed are not engineering, construction or financing details. The problem is more deep-seated than that. The difficulty lies in the lack of credible facts-based and science-based analyses of the environmental and health benefits of the project, and subsequently, a credible cost/benefit analysis.

Without such information, it is no wonder that so many members of the public have such doubts about the massive commitment of tax money and the massive construction dislocation that the project will entail, and there is no wonder that a committee of municipal politicians is in such disarray. They are in the position of being told to build a house without first being allowed to build the foundations.

The way out of this predicament is straightforward. The key is the federal designation of the Victoria wastewater situation as “high risk.” This was done in 2012. The “high risk” designation means that there is a 2020 deadline for dealing with the issue of wastewater.

How did the “high risk” designation come about? As far as can be determined, largely by error — the criteria appropriate for a freshwater river was applied to the Juan de Fuca Strait. That the designation is inappropriate is clear from the fact that in the four years since it was announced, there has been no health or environmental warning related to it.

If the residents of the CRD were really living in a “high risk” situation, you can be sure we would have had a stream of warnings about those “high risks” that we faced. As we have not, the designation is clearly inappropriate and should be reduced to “low risk.”

Were that to be done, the deadline of 2020 would no longer apply, and the CRD would have time to do whatever is needed to assess the facts and the science, to do the necessary cost/benefit study, and to restructure its dysfunctional committee system.

There is a high probability that the federal government would welcome a request to change the high-risk designation. First, it is obviously wrong, and the new government has proclaimed that it wants its decisions to be governed by facts and science. Second, it flies in the face of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own assessment of the situation, when, according to the Times Colonist of Nov. 22, 2012, he concluded that on-land secondary treatment would provide no net benefits to Greater Victoria.

The present system is not working. No harm can come from trying a fresh approach.

David Anderson served as MP for Victoria from 1993 to 2006. He also served three years as federal minister of fisheries and oceans and five years as federal minister of environment.

 

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