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Sewage choices can’t be rushed

Sewage choices can’t be rushed

Editorial, Times Colonist, June 11, 2010

It is hard to feel great confidence in the capital region’s ever-changing sewage treatment project. The best approach was a distributed treatment system, the public was initially told. Many small plants would be less disruptive and allow greater resource recovery.

Then the plan evolved to two or three sites, including a treatment plant near Cadboro Bay, likely in Haro Woods. Any decision on the location of a West Shore plant location was still to be made.

At the same time, the Capital Regional District was trying to find land in the Upper Harbour area. A large-enough site to allow liquid and solid waste treatment in one location would save taxpayers’ money.

And now the proposal — which must go to the provincial government within three weeks — calls for one plant to treat liquid waste at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt. Solid waste would be pumped to the Hartland landfill or, perhaps, somewhere else. Underground storage tanks will go somewhere in Saanich East. A planned Clover Point overflow plant will be scrubbed and any West Shore treatment plans put off into the future.

It is natural for plans to evolve. That’s the purpose of doing studies and consultations.

And the changes, according to the CRD sewage committee, will save money. Capital costs will drop from $970 million to $780 million. Operating costs will be reduced from $20 million a year to $14.5 million a year.

As a result, the annual cost per household will drop to between $200 and $500, depending on the municipality.

But many questions remain. The McLoughlin Point site — the former home to an oil tank farm at the entrance to the Inner Harbour — poses problems. Consultants warned it is barely large enough for a plant and substantial excavation would be required in the rocky shore. There are unknown cleanup costs for past contamination.

And if an Upper Harbour location is more desirable, perhaps more time should be taken to explore options.

The CRD committee — and the full board, which is to vote on the plan on June 23 — could take two steps to ease public concern.

First, the committee should strive to open its meetings to the public. There are occasions — perhaps around property purchases — where meeting behind closed doors is required. But there is keen interest in the process and trust and accountability will be won by open meetings. Too many decisions and discussions have been taking place behind closed doors.

And the CRD should feel free to tell the provincial Environment Ministry, which is dictating the schedule for the project, that it won’t comply. The government’s unpopularity makes it less likely that it could take any drastic action against the region.

That’s not to encourage foot-dragging or needless delay.

But these are critical decisions that will affect life in the capital for decades. It’s worth taking the time to get them right — and persuade the public the choices are sound.

1 comment to Sewage choices can’t be rushed

  • I agree with every point made in this commentary, but nevertheless wish to commend the CRD’s Liquid Waste Management Committee [CALWMC] for having the courage to change a bad plan at this late date. Once a plan has been announced, millions spent on studies and land acquisition, and a PR campaign mounted to sell it to the public, it must be extremely difficult for politicians of any stripe to say “we were wrong – there’s a better way.” Good for you, CALWMC!

    But now, more than ever, the Committee needs time to get it right. From its inception in 2006 most of this project’s problems have resulted from hasty decisions, often driven by the impossibly short deadlines imposed by BC’s Environment Minister. How many times over the past four years have CALWMC members been quoted as saying, in effect: “I don’t like the plan in its present form but we have to meet a deadline so I’ll hold my nose and vote for it.”

    Repeated studies, and the independently-monitored reports of the CRD’s own Science staff, have shown that the existing system poses no immediate threat to public health or the environment, and the argument for land-based treatment has always been that as our population grows “we can’t do this forever.” The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, in the Canada-Wide Strategy document signed in 2009, suggests a 30-year time frame as appropriate for such situations. And postponement of a $750 million expenditure, in the present economic climate, could not be a bad thing. Surely Mr. Penner can give the CRD a year or two.

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