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Sewage group’s mandate impossibly broad 

AUGUST 14, 2016

The expert panel appointed to oversee Victoria’s wastewater project is
expected to issue its final recommendations a month from today.
Specifically, a report will be sent to the Capital Regional District
on Sept. 14, and the CRD board must make a decision almost

While it’s in everyone’s interest to see the panel succeed, the omens
are hardly encouraging. There are two basic rules for managing a
project like this, and the province — which imposed the new panel —
has broken both of them.

Rule 1: If you want experts to come up with recommendations on a
hideously complex matter, and do it within four months, narrow the
focus, don’t widen it.

Yet the panel’s mandate (co-designed by the province) is open-ended in
the extreme, and, in several places, conflicted. The members are to
design “a sewage treatment and resource-recovery system that is
innovative, achievable and optimizes benefits — economic, social and
environmental (including climate-change mitigation) — for the long
term.” For a team with limited time lines, that’s a hopelessly broad

Next, they are to be “responsive to community values and concerns.”
And those would be — what, exactly? There is zero consensus here. The
municipalities can’t agree. The scientists can’t agree. Public-health
officials rate the whole project a massive waste of money.

Then again, they are to “minimize costs to residents and businesses.”
Good idea. But how does that square with optimizing social and
environmental benefits?

Finally, the business case is to include either “enhanced secondary,
or tertiary treatment.” Well, which is it? This isn’t a minor detail.
It’s like telling the pilot of a 747 bound for Vancouver that if he
prefers San Francisco, that’ll be fine.

In short, the panel’s mandate gives an obligatory nod to every
politically correct notion making the rounds, while laying out goals
that are fundamentally at odds with each other.

Now you could say, well, that simply gives the members plenty of
choice. But it could also leave some CRD board members in an
impossible position.

In effect, they must accommodate recommendations that might represent
political suicide. What if the panel recommends the original choice —
one plant at McLoughlin Point? Can Esquimalt’s Mayor Barb Desjardins
go along with that?

Which brings us to the second rule: Do not force junior levels of
government to own a decision that will ruin them, especially if it can
be taken out of their hands.

You do them no favour.

But the province broke that one as well. After the CRD spent years
footling around under the direction of the environment minister (who
scuttled an earlier plan due to Esquimalt’s veto), the province
stepped in and imposed an expert panel.

But lessons learned is not a concept here. So the government recreated
its original mistake by insisting that the final decision still had to
be taken by the CRD. The panel’s recommendations were to be considered
merely advisory.

So how does this work? Let’s say the panel tries to avoid an Esquimalt
veto by scattering numerous plants around the region. That, of course,
will force up costs, possibly by several hundred million dollars.

And the CRD is supposed to pass this along to local taxpayers as a
decision they personally own? But what if the directors say no?

The federal and provincial funding deadlines are almost upon us.
They’re out of time.

The proper solution was to have the panel report to the province, and
let the decision rest there. After all, this entire fiasco was forced
on the capital region by senior levels of government with far deeper

There are smart people serving on the panel. But as the saying goes,
you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And in this case,
there’s more sow than silk.

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