A contentious decision on how fast Metro Vancouver should move to rebuild its two oldest and most polluting sewage treatment plants will drag on into the new year.
The Iona and Lions Gate sewage treatment plants, which discharge into the ocean with only a basic level of treatment, are to be replaced with cleaner, more advanced plants at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion.
Administrators this month recommended Metro delay the reconstruction of Iona for an additional 10 years, to as late as 2030.
But Metro directors voted Nov. 26 to reject that timeline and maintain 2020 as the deadline for replacing both aging plants.
A final decision on the timing will wait until after Metro’s finance committee meets again in January to reconsider the challenge of how to finance the costly projects.
“If we’re going to pay for it by ourselves, it’s almost unaffordable,” said Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, who chairs Metro’s waste committee.
“I don’t think 2020 is realistic if we don’t have federal and provincial dollars in this.”
It’s not yet clear how much Victoria or Ottawa might stump up, but the province is contributing heavily to a new sewage treatment system for the City of Victoria.
Hunt said federal guidelines suggest the North Shore treatment plant should get priority because it discharges into more confined waters near Stanley Park and Burrard Inlet, as opposed to Iona, which has an outfall jutting deeper into Georgia Strait.
But environmental groups who have tried to prosecute Metro Vancouver for the illegal discharge of fish-killing effluent from Iona say it would be wrong to wait longer.
“Iona is a much larger source of pollution than Lions Gate,” says Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro. “Iona is the largest single point source of marine pollution on the entire B.C. coast.”
A private prosecution launched against Metro by Ecojustice and allied groups under the Fisheries Act was shut down last year by the federal government.
But critics contend the plant is still pumping toxins into the offshore marine habitat, potentially affecting everything from migrating salmon to orca whales.
The primary treatment Metro uses at the Iona plant can’t filter out contaminants like PCBs and metals, which can then accumulate in sea life and move up the food chain.
The provincial government in 2002 had directed Metro to improve the two plants to secondary treatment by 2020.
Tessaro also noted Vancouver’s greenest city plan calls for a rapid upgrade of the Iona plant.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, who also sits on the waste committee, wants to keep the 2020 deadline in place for both Iona and Lions Gate.
“Environmentally, we have to be moving ahead,” he said, adding the federal and provincial governments will ultimately decide what gets built.
“If they’re not going to finance both of them, then so be it,” Steves said. “We shouldn’t be letting our senior governments off the hook – especially since the provincial government has twice decreed that Iona should have secondary treatment.”
The sewage treatment plant rebuilds are major cost drivers that will hit Metro taxpayers hard.
The combined annual cost of regional services is projected to rise 50 per cent over the next five years to $660 per household, in large part due to major sewage, water and waste-handling projects.