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Examine costs, benefits of sewage alternatives

Comment: Examine costs, benefits of sewage alternatives


APRIL 21, 2016  

A business case is needed for sewage-treatment plans. The province has stepped up. On April 13, Peter Fassbender, the provincial minister responsible for Community, Sport and Cultural Development, addressed the Capital Regional District’s liquid waste management committee.

The minister has committed two experienced public servants, deputy minister Jacquie Dawes and former deputy minister of finance Peter Milburn, as well as Amanda Farrell, the president and chief executive officer of Partnerships B.C., to assist the CRD to come up with a plan for increased sewage treatment.

He stressed that the CRD has to come up with a definite plan and that a business case needs to be developed. Fassbender’s full remarks can be heard on the CRD’s webcast site.

In a business case, there needs to be a definition of the cost-benefit.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from this provincial intervention.

Given that the benefits to the marine environment will be insignificant, is building land-based sewage treatment plants a cost-effective way of protecting the marine environment? Is it even possible to calculate a cost-benefit of this project when the measurable benefits have not been identified?

The CRD has been having a great deal of difficulty deciding either where sewage treatment plants might be located or what technology will be used. The public consultations by the CRD seem to have resulted in an amazing number of aspirational and sentimental ideas that might be technically possible but are expensive.

For the proposed increased sewage treatment, the CRD directors eventually have to decide what is needed or required by legislation and affordable by the taxpayer.

An example of where the CRD’s planning has been off the rails is water reclamation. As the CRD’s consultants have stated: “While treating to tertiary level has some appeal, it does come with higher capital and operating costs” and there is “a strong sentiment to reuse reclaimed water.”

What the CRD seems unwilling accept is the information from staff about the need, which shows that there is an adequate supply of water for more than 50 years for the region. To continue to support the increased cost of water reclamation (tertiary treatment) is absurd. It might be a nice idea but it is not needed and will incur a much greater cost to the taxpayer.

The CRD has been planning to spend more than $1 billion on sewage treatment for Victoria. To date there has been no cost-benefit study (or value-for-money audit) for building these planned land-based sewage-treatment plants. As Fassbender stated, both federal and provincial governments require a business case before any funding is approved.

What was also clear from the minister’s remarks is that neither the provincial nor federal funding commitments to a future sewage-treatment plan are guaranteed. This is because both governments’ cabinets and treasury boards still have to approve the funding. Any announcements or even contracts previously signed will not likely be honoured.

There is one thing the public needs to understand and be reminded of. Highly credible marine scientists, from B.C. and Washington state, and B.C. public health officials have given their best judgment that there will be no significant benefit to the marine environment or benefit to human health for a vast expenditure of public funds.

The recent federal government letter requiring the CRD to put in secondary treatment by 2020 repeats an arbitrary formula created to determine risk. It needs to be challenged because it is based on a formula that considers volume as a risk, which it is not in Victoria’s situation.

The formula also does not consider that the CRD outfalls can meet the biological requirements after a 100-metre diffusion zone — as the CRD effluent does because of the unique receiving environment.

It still makes sense to challenge the regulation and seek a re-designation of the CRD’s sewage practice of screening and discharge through deep sea outfalls as low risk. This would enable the deadline for implementation to move to 2040.

The time would allow for the innovation that several CRD directors are seeking. It would also allow a further review of new scientific information to determine whether extra treatment is needed and whether there will be a cost-benefit.

Dr. Shaun Peck is a public health consultant and was medical health officer for the CRD from 1989 to 1995. He is a member of Responsible Sewage Treatment Victoria.


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