Stumbles on The Path Forward

By David Broadland, January 2013

Saanich councillor Vic Derman worries the six-year effort to envision an environmentally and fiscally sound sewage treatment plan is, so far, a failure.

For a moment the board room on the sixth floor of the CRD’s Fisgard Street headquarters erupted in pandemonium. Shouted insults, derisive laughter and expressions of disbelief filled the room. As two people stalked out of the December 12 meeting in apparent disgust, chairperson Denise Blackwell pounded her gavel and called for order.

That little moment of drama followed the opening words of City of Victoria councillor Ben Isitt, who had just told fellow members of the CRD’s Core Area Waste Treatment Plan Committee, “I understand why Oak Bay council and director Derman have buckled to the tax revolt coming from the Uplands....” Isitt, sometimes impolitic in his choice of words, was making a point about a motion made by Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen. With the unanimous support of his council, Jensen was calling for “a full environmental study that will assess the comparative environmental impact of the current process and proposed process for disposing of liquid waste before the CRD plans are finalized.” Jensen had told the meeting, “The motion does not seek to abandon the idea of treatment, nor does it seek to overly delay the project.”

It wasn’t so much Isitt’s unexpected equation that an environmental assessment equals a tax revolt that had elicited such an angry response from some of those witnessing the meeting. Or even his misplaced inclusion of Saanich councillor Vic Derman in that calculation. It was that in a few short words he had managed to cram a richly complex 30-year community-wide debate into a political statement about class conflict.

Isitt went on to say, “ARESST is trying to stop the plan at any cost and they’ll deploy every possible argument. And this environmental assessment issue is just another red herring trying to delay action.”

ARESST—the Association for Responsible & Environmentally Sustainable Sewage Treatment—self-described as “a group of ordinary, taxpaying Greater Victoria residents, deeply concerned about the local and marine environments, who believe that potentially disastrous mistakes are being made in the rush to develop a secondary sewage treatment system,” was well represented at the meeting. Their yellow-shirted members seemed to slightly outnumber a contingent of blue-shirted pro-treatment supporters. The latter, though, were boosted in stature by the appearance of an out-of-uniform Mr Floatie decked out in a sea-blue shirt.

In the discussion that followed, Isitt’s view that Jensen’s motion was just a last-ditch effort to delay the project was shared, a little less bluntly, by other directors. Saanich councillor Susan Brice—who once served as mayor of Oak Bay—told her fellow directors, “Everything has been exhaustively gone over... I do not support the motion that’s on the floor because I do think it’s a motion to delay and I am not interested in delaying this any more.”

But the question of whether the proposed plan should be examined to determine whether it will provide any real environmental benefits compared with the current ocean dumping of 123 million litres of raw sewage each day was debated more directly by some other committee members.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins told the meeting her council had unanimously endorsed Jensen’s motion, and she appealed to directors to listen, “because I get the sense sometimes that ears are closed when certain speakers are speaking.” “We should be using climate change,” she suggested, “as one of the overall lenses” through which projects like this are considered.

Derman, the alleged tax revolter, told the committee the benefits to the marine environment were unknown and the cost of the treatment plan, which has been estimated at $783 million, could hobble the region’s ability to address other problems. And he linked one of those problems, the high degree of single-occupancy vehicle use in the CRD, to deterioration of the marine environment. “The primary source of greenhouse gases in this region is transportation, which accounts for around 60 percent,” he reminded his fellow directors. “We know there’s way too many people moving around in single occupancy vehicles. We need to spend a lot of money to change that situation and put infrastructure in place. The biggest problem facing the marine environment globally today, by far, is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The acidification of the ocean is the biggest threat, by a mile, and that comes from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is a huge concern to marine scientists.”

“So we need something,” Derman implored, “that says ‘What’s the net result going to be?’”

Derman reminded directors that one configuration for a treatment system that had been  briefly considered had the potential for six times greater greenhouse gas reductions than the plan chosen—“an incredible difference in environmental benefit—but no explanation was ever given by CRD staff as to why that option was dropped.”

“If the rationale is to improve the marine environment, then we really do need to make sure we have a study that tells us exactly how much benefit we’ll receive...” Derman said.

City of Victoria councillor and Regional Board Chair Geoff Young disagreed that another study was needed. “I really do hate to spend the committee’s time re-discussing an issue that has been discussed, but I think some response is required.”

Young told fellow directors, “We’ve heard that we cannot prove sewage treatment is necessary. I think what we have really heard is that the level of uncertainty is so great that we can never prove that it is unnecessary.” Young expressed concern about “the effects of the many chemicals going into our ocean in our sewage at low levels. We see bioaccumulation in top level predators. Can we prove where it comes from? Maybe not easily. We hear evidence of impacts. It’s certainly not something I would want to dismiss out of hand. Someone mentioned greenhouse gases as our major environmental problem. It took 80 or 90 years for people to recognize the impact of GHGs on our environment. Some of those impacts [from bioaccumulation] may take as long to show up, and they may be as serious.”

Young said he hadn’t hear any arguments from around the table “worthy of slowing down this project.”

Jensen’s motion was defeated by a vote of ten to five.

 

THE NEXT DAY I met with Vic Derman at a White Spot on Quadra Street. It was just after four but already young families were wandering in for an early supper. We found a booth with a big window and, over tea, talked about the perplexing politics of sewage treatment. On this issue there probably isn’t a politician in the CRD who knows more than Derman.

His roots go deep down in this community. Born here in 1944, he still lives in the part of town where he went to school before attending UVic. He had a long career as a teacher, the last dozen years at Cedar Hill Junior where he started BC’s first multimedia computer lab.

Derman has impeccable credentials in the environmental community. He, along with Briony Penn, Bill Turner, Bob Pert and Don Benn founded the Land Conservancy of British Columbia in 1997, and was the organization’s vice-president for their first five years.

Penn told me she first met Derman in 1991 when he helped her in her fight to preserve a Garry oak meadow on Christmas Hill that was threatened by development. In 2002 Derman was named the CRD’s Environmental Citizen of the Year.

An interest in the regional growth strategy brought Derman to civic politics, first through the North Quadra Community Association as vice-president and then as president. He retired from teaching when he was 55 because the many hours taken by his outside interests “weren’t fair to family.”

First elected to Saanich council in 2002 and the CRD board in 2005, Derman characterizes his political style as “Not a wall-flower. I try to hold my powder and use it on the big issues. If I think there’s something wrong, I dig in as hard as I can.” Derman says he tries to look at local issues from what he calls “the 40,000-foot view.” In considering the sewage treatment issue, he says, that means “I can’t consider this by itself. What’s its impact on other issues, even on environmental issues?”

At the CRD meeting the day before, his complex argument that spending on sewage treatment might mean not being able to afford transportation infrastructure improvements that, because of their greenhouse gas implications, could have a bigger benefit for the marine environment than treatment, might be seen by some as a call to inaction. But Derman says there are many politicians “that don’t really take the time, or have the inclination, to really get that understanding of the big picture of what we face, and so we have trouble really prioritizing things. There’s a lot who are satisfied with being incremental, moving forward by baby steps.”

Like Desjardins, Derman thinks the treatment project needs to be part of the regional response to climate change. “I strongly believe that the biggest issue we face is climate change, by a mile, and that everything we do should go through a climate change lens.” He seems unwilling to settle for “baby steps.”

Over tea, Derman launches into an hour-long recounting of several significant events in the past six years that left him with deep concerns that the process that produced The Path Forward—the current plan for treatment—was so flawed that the final product itself was bound to be likewise flawed. 

Soon after provincial Environment Minister Barry Penner ordered the CRD to prepare a treatment plan in 2006, Derman says he realized, “There is a certain environmental cost to treating. Is this the right thing to do? I didn’t know. So I suggested to the committee that we should challenge the minister on this. But the committee wouldn’t push back.”

Instead, the long chain of events that led to Nils Jensen’s motion on December 14 began.  In 2006 CRD staff put out a request for “Expressions Of Interest,” (EOI) to, as Derman put it, “see what was out there.”

Derman says he made a pitch to the committee that the EOI be “wide open so we would get the best and brightest ideas,” and was given “assurances” by CRD staff to that effect.  He told staff he wanted to read the submissions that came in himself, “without a filter.” About four months later Derman was given a box of 21 binders, submissions that came in response to the EOI. After reading through them all, he says, “I was really disappointed. There was nothing innovative. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there isn’t anything out there.’”

In April 2007, Derman says, “CRD staff  introduced The Path Forward, which is essentially the plan that’s there now.” But a few months later, in the summer of 2007, he was having lunch with Terry Williams, who Derman describes as “one of the greenest architects in town,” who told Derman he was disappointed his submission to the EOI had been rejected out of hand. “I asked him, ‘What submission? I read them all, and you didn’t have one.’” Williams pulled the submission out of his briefcase, which turned out to be based on resource recovery. Williams told Derman CRD staff had rejected the submission because it didn’t fit the terms of reference for the EOI. Derman says, “I was green, I had these assurances from staff,” but when he went back and looked at the EOI, he saw that it had been structured so that any proposal that didn’t fit into the existing network of pipes and pumps wasn’t considered. “Since then I’ve had concerns,” Derman tells me. “It seems that somebody believed they had the answer before they asked the question. The answer was The Path Forward.”

Derman began doing his own research once he realized there were alternative technologies that weren’t being explored, and in September 2008 he brought a motion forward calling for a second EOI. The vote was six “for” and six “opposed,” which meant it failed. However, within minutes of the meeting’s adjournment, staff told him the vote had not been properly counted. There were actually 13 directors at the meeting and the motion had passed seven to six. But soon after he returned home, the CRD’s Kelly Daniels phoned Derman and told him that because it had been recorded at the meeting that the vote had been defeated, that result would have to stand. “That was disappointing for me,” he says. “It would have allowed the opportunity for less conventional processes to come through.”

There were other signs the process was somehow being guided by an unseen hand toward a pre-determined end. Derman knew that a Technical and Community Advisory Committee had been set up to advise the sewage committee, but whatever they did wasn’t coming to his attention. So he asked a member what was going on. “They told me they did virtually nothing. One man told me, ‘All we ever do is read reports that you fellows have already passed, have our sandwich and go home.’ That kind of thing really alarmed me,” Derman says.

He recounts his exploration of an option to The Path Forward’s plan for dealing with the sludge that would be produced by the treatment plant at McLouglin Point. The McLouglin site is too small for the biodigesters that would gasify the sludge. They would require five acres more than is available, and a search for a suitable nearby site was unsuccessful. So the engineering consultants devised a plan to locate the biodigesters 18 kilometres away, near the CRD’s Hartland Landfill. That would require a pipeline connecting the two sites.

Derman told me, “The pipeline is about $30-40 million, the total capital cost is $265 million, and there would be an operating loss of $3-4 million a year.” The plan was to gasify 40-50 percent of the sludge, dry the remainder and—hopefully—ship the resulting “biosolids” to Vancouver where they would be burned in cement kilns. “The backup plan,” Derman tells me, “is to landfill it at Hartland, which is completely inconsistent with our goal of extending the life of Hartland.”

So Derman did some research. “I went to one of the modern gasifier companies and said, ‘Can you guys handle this?’” After some back and forth between the company and CRD staff, Derman got a cost estimate for a plant with “100 percent redundancy” that would gasify “65 to 85 percent” of the sludge and produce an easily-disposable ash from the remainder. Derman says such a plant would require just over an acre of land and that could open up many options nearer to McLouglin Point that would work. “The estimate came back and capital costs would be $50-60 million and the operating cost would be $300,000 to $400,000 a year. I took it to the committee and said, ‘This is a saving of $200 million plus $3-4 million in [annual] operating costs. That’s pretty huge. So shouldn’t we look at this further?’ And the response I got from the committee and the staff was, ‘Oh, no, that can come at the procurement stage.’”

Derman says that struck him as “hugely irresponsible.” “We knew then that the procurement stage was run by a commission, and local politicians have very little authority over that commission. As long as they stay within the budget and scope of the project, they control what happens.”

I ask Derman if part of the impetus to delay the project was coming, as Ben Isitt suggested, from a concern about the affect it would have on property taxation. “Some people,” Derman says, “are simply saying ‘I’m over-taxed now, I can’t afford more.’ And then there are those who say ‘I want to make sure my tax dollars are spent well. If I think this is really necessary, I’m willing to spend the money. But I don’t think it’s necessary.’ I’m in that second group.”

Derman worries about the “legacy” he’d be leaving for politicians who come after him “to do things like transportation improvements, health care, affordable housing. Victoria, I understand, has huge financial issues with infrastructure replacement down the road. Whoever is mayor and council, their ability to respond to that is going to be severely impacted by the costs of this project.”

That cost, currently set at $783 million, was based on an estimate done by Stantec Consulting in June 2010. That was the very same month Stantec was peer-reviewing and approving a Class C cost estimate for the new Johnson Street Bridge that subsequently proved to underestimate costs by over 20 percent. A copy of Stantec’s sewage treatment estimate, titled “Probable Cost Breakdowns,” obtained by Focus through an FOI request, had price information redacted. But the nature of the document—it appears to be a single page in length, each line of the estimate consisting of a broad category of costs, such as “Siteworks” and “Struvite Recovery Plant”—suggests it may not even have the level of certainty of a Class C estimate.

Asked about the estimate, Derman says, “It’s not a great estimate in terms of exactness. I think any competent engineer would tell you that. We don’t even know for sure what we’re building yet. I’m hoping it will be less. I’m hoping there will be a rational approach to the biosolids, which I’ve already suggested might make a very substantial saving.” But, Derman says, “We’re responsible 100 percent for any cost overruns. That’s scarey as hell.”

Derman’s “40,000-foot view” has been hard for some of his fellow committee members to appreciate. “I’m sure there are those who regard me as a complete pain in the back end, that I’m there to be a nuisance, to try to make sure we never treat, or whatever. But that’s not the case at all. I want to make sure that we do something that is fiscally and environmentally the most appropriate thing we can do for the region.”

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.