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The McLoughlin Plan is the wrong plan

A gross misuse of a public treasure — and a wasteful system to boot

John Motherwell, PEng.

John Motherwell, PEng.

John Motherwell, Bob Furber and Alex Murdoch, Special to Times Colonist, September 23, 2010

Capital Regional District board chairman Geoff Young defended the choice of McLoughlin Point as the site of a sewage treatment plant, citing “significant resource recovery, lower cost and reduced impacts on neighbourhoods” plus “social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

We disagree, and support Esquimalt council in its call for a second look.

McLoughlin Point is a magnificent setting and, as View Royal Mayor Graham Hill has remarked, if this were Sydney, it would support an opera house. Treating it simply as available industrial land would be a gross misuse of a unique public treasure and this alone has upset many people.

But even if that were not an issue there is a great deal wrong with the McLoughlin Plan. And many of the “advantages” cited by the CRD board are wishful thinking at best.

Modern, efficient treatment plants generate energy through heat recovery and methane production, often enough to supply 80 per cent of their needs. But McLoughlin Point will not house a treatment plant, but rather half of a plant, the other half to be up to 18 kilometres away and connected by two large pipes — a system dictated by the fact that the site is too small!

Designers strive to integrate plants as closely as possible and we know of no other case where components have been so widely separated.

This is an extremely inefficient system demanding huge amounts of energy, and any “recovery” will be a fraction of that expended; to suggest that there will be a surplus is to ignore the laws of physics.

Methane generated at Hartland could be sold, but that energy would have to be replaced at McLoughlin through the purchase of electricity — essentially a shell game. The suggestion that phosphorus (fertilizer) and/or dried biosolids (fuel pellets) could be sold ignores the fact that production costs (in dollars, energy, and greenhouse gases) would be many times the value of the finished products. Digging up roads and existing utilities for pipelines and pumping stations would be costly and very disruptive.

Young says a tunnel under Esquimalt Harbour to supply a West Shore plant would be “an extremely high-risk and high-cost endeavour.” We agree, but note that the McLoughlin option requires not one but three large pipes beneath Victoria harbour — one delivering sewage (mostly water) from the Victoria side, one with a thicker “slurry” to the solids plant, and one returning still-contaminated water from the solids plant for reprocessing at McLoughlin.

He states categorically that “there will be no problematic odours” and that “planned redundancies … will prevent any discharge of raw sewage into the harbour” — essentially “Trust us, nothing can go wrong.”

But all such plants (even the CRD plant at Bazan Bay) produce odours and, although these are commonly mitigated, malfunctions can be very unpleasant indeed. As for the impossibility of spills, Halifax is still cleaning up the mess discharged into its harbour by a malfunction two years past.

And those pipes below the harbour in a high-risk seismic zone?

Murphy’s law applies: Things will go wrong.

- John Motherwell is a practising civil engineer who designs sewage treatment systems; Bob Furber is a retired chemical engineer with experience in both sewage treatment and resource recovery; Alex Murdoch is a director of the Society for Responsible and Environmentally Sustainable Sewage Treatment [aresst.ca].

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