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The sewage emperor still wears no clothes


MAY 18, 2016 

The multibillion-dollar boondoggle continues to unfold in the capital region.

Victoria currently has a state-of-the-art sewage-treatment system: sustainable, low greenhouse-gas emissions, environmentally friendly and ocean-based. According to Capital Regional District estimates, constructing a land-based treatment plant would produce nearly 16,000 tonnes of GHGs, and annual operations would add a further 8,000 tonnes every year.

In the opinion of credible marine scientists, medical health officers and wastewater-treatment engineers, the current system causes negligible harm, hence there would be negligible benefit (for the ocean, or human health) from replacing it with land-based sewage treatment.

In response to the Walkerton tragedy, which resulted from unqualified people running a vital public-health utility, new federal wastewater regulations were adopted in order to protect drinking water. The Arctic was exempted, because issues there were recognized to be so different from the rest of Canada.

Wastewater systems discharging to marine environments (salt water), which can never be sources of drinking water, were nearly exempted, but instead, a last-minute decision was made to impose one-size-fits-all regulations on fundamentally different freshwater and marine environments. This decision might have been aimed specifically at Victoria; our situation is unique, with no other mid-sized Canadian city having a similar ocean-based treatment system.

The federal regulations that mandate land-based treatment by 2020 are deeply flawed and should be challenged by the CRD, as ably explained by University of Victoria marine scientists Chris Garrett and Jack Littlepage (“Federal sewage regulations should be challenged,” comment, May 7). Victoria is low risk, and treatment should not be required until 2040.

On May 8, Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver and parliamentary secretary for environment and climate change, offered himself as an expert on sewage treatment. How handy, to be able to acquire this expertise without formal study or applied experience of any kind. Except there’s just one problem: he hasn’t. He doesn’t understand the purpose of the new federal wastewater regulations, so he parrots them. He doesn’t understand the statements by knowledgeable experts about the effectiveness of our ocean-based treatment system, so he ignores them.

Of course, he has a lot of company, led locally by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, whose approach to scientific and technical evidence supporting our current system is simple — refuse to listen.

On May 11, B.C. Community Minister Peter Fassbender told the CRD to set up an “expert board” to direct the sewage project. It would be refreshing if he had explicitly said that relevant technical and scientific experts would be included on the board, but he didn’t.

In fact, the following terms do not even appear in Fassbender’s document: technical, science, expert, evidence and cost-effective. Such experts should certainly be included on the board to protect the public interest.

The board is supposed to put together a “business case” for land-based treatment for the CRD. There is just one problem: Unlike cost-benefit analysis, which looks more broadly at societal impacts and can consider the value of social and environmental effects, a business case (if done correctly) considers only the direct budgetary costs and savings to the sponsoring organization. As currently envisaged land-based treatment (including cost overruns) would cost government $1 billion to $3 billion, with negligible offsetting budgetary savings, any competent business case must inevitably fail.

Cost-benefit analysis for land-based treatment also fails, of course, because there are high costs and significant environmental harms on land.

At the moment, Wilkinson is representing the Trudeau government in this important policy area, seriously undermining the government’s stated focus on evidence-based policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ministerial mandate letter for Environment and Climate Change states: “I expect that our work will be informed by performance measurement, evidence and feedback from Canadians.” It also instructs the minister to “ensure that decisions are based on science, facts and evidence, and serve the public’s interest.” Oops.

There are also Trudeau’s own statements on Victoria sewage treatment in November 2012, reported by the Times Colonist: “I think the big issue is evidence-based policy. The decision is how we are going to spend infrastructure money and taxpayers’ money. I think there are enough questions about the choices being made … that should make people realize it’s a push of ideology over actual scientific evidence.”

Contesting the federal fiat would require backbone and a commitment to evidence-based policy by our local politicians, and apparently neither is available, yet.

Victoria residents, and taxpayers at all levels, deserve better. The emperor still has no clothes.

Rebecca Warburton is a professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public administration and a health economist with 30 years of experience in the cost-benefit analysis of health-related public projects.


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