Fear and funding weapons of choice in the sewage battle

By Leslie Campbell, March 1, 2016

Mayor Helps’ forceful push to a billion-dollar sewage facility at Rock Bay takes some twists and turns—and ain’t done yet.

Mayor Lisa HelpsLATELY A NUMBER OF PEOPLE, from seniors to sewage activists, have wondered aloud if Mayor Lisa Helps is moving too fast. Her penchant for “getting things done” is one she readily admits to, from planting potatoes in February to “stampeding” her fellow CRD colleagues towards a decision on a sewage treatment plan.

I met with Mayor Helps on Sunday, February 21, at City Hall. I had requested an hour for an interview but was given 30 minutes with the assurance by her executive secretary that, “The Mayor is extremely good at covering a lot of information within 30 minutes.” She was right.

In her casual, commodious office Helps told me she tries to spend 75 percent of her time on “getting things done.” That means “working with council, getting decisions made, and then really working on the execution of our mission and mandate of the strategic plan.”

Asked what she finds most satisfying about being the City’s chief, she said, “the partnerships formed in the past year.” She mentioned the Province, neighbourhood associations, Tourism Victoria, the Greater Victoria Development Commission, the Chamber of Commerce, and then returned to theme: “If you have strong partners you can get more done, you can get more resilient change made...”

And the hardest thing? “I move very quickly, both in my thought processes and I’ll say, ‘let’s do this and let’s get going,’ so one of my challenges is, going at a pace…where there’s actually that room for collaboration…I understand that if we want to bring people along it does take time. I just like to march full on ahead, but it can’t always work.”

Turning to her role as chair of the CRD’s Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee, I asked her how she feels about the charge in that morning’s paper by Brian Grover, a Victoria resident who has prepared and appraised large water sanitation projects for the World Bank. He wrote that she is “stampeding” her fellow directors towards a sewage treatment plan involving Rock Bay. 

She embraced the characterization with enthusiasm: “We’ve been working on this since 1989. Anyone who says it’s rushed, I don’t buy that…yes I am ‘stampeding’ us to a decision. I absolutely am, because we need to make a decision and we need to get something done. There’s still room, after we make a decision, for all sorts of innovation—especially if we can show the Province and the federal government that we are moving in the right direction. We will get more flexibility, but we can’t do nothing and we can’t say it’s moving too fast.”

Her next “to do” on the sewage front is to secure $83 million in PPP Canada funding. The deadline is March 31, and prior to that the Province has to approve the CRD’s amended plan.

Towards that “Amendment #10,” a decision on siting for the sewage treatment facilities needs to be made, and that’s what Helps intended to get done at the next meeting of the sewage committee.

 

DOCUMENTS FOR THE February 24 sewage committee meeting showed that CRD staff were recommending using Rock Bay lands for a central tertiary treatment plant. Capital cost: $1.13 billion.

Things have been headed towards Rock Bay since the last civic election, which resulted in a change in the make-up of the CRD board and committees. How the Rock Bay site became a possibility, let alone the preferred one, is murky. Much of the decision-making about it likely took place at in camera meetings and have something to do with First Nations claims. In February 2015 it was announced the $138-million remediation of toxic soil on Rock Bay lands owned by BC Hydro and Transport Canada were almost completed, clearing the way for their transfer to local First Nations. At the time Helps said, “The City looks forward to partnering with the First Nations as they move forward with economic development…This area holds the key to the future of our city.” By November 2015, Rock Bay had become the “it” site for sewage treatment on the east side, with all of the seven options put forward involving at least some sort of plant at Rock Bay.

People have complained about such a key area for urban growth being devoted to sewage treatment, predicting that the result will be industrial and repelling. But Helps is an optimist. “Whatever happens at Rock Bay, there will be rezoning required and rezoning will be for wastewater, commercial, retail, residential,” she told me. “So you can think about something like Dockside 2.0. I see huge benefits to the residents of Victoria and to the residents of the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood who will be very involved in whatever is developed.”

As critics and some CRD directors have pointed out, however, Rock Bay is far from any existing wastewater infrastructure. So $250-million worth of new pipes will be needed, causing years of disruption along Cook Street and other arteries between Rock Bay and Clover Point. Businesses along the route are already worrying about bankruptcy, according to City of Victoria Councillor Geoff Young. As well, the land at Rock Bay has been priced at a hair-raising $67 million. Unlike McLoughlin Point, it’s neither owned by the CRD nor zoned appropriately. There are many hurdles to leap before it’s approved by the community.

Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen made all these points and then some when he led the charge to reintroduce McLoughlin Point into the equation at a February 24 sewage committee meeting. He cited the dramatic cost differences—two to three times per household in each municipality—between the two plans. McLoughlin has been costed at “only” $783 million. The additional hundreds of millions for the Rock Bay options would, argued Jensen, “suck capital out of this region” for years to come. And that’s before factoring in what he called the “$200-million footnote” of the Rock Bay proposal. Its costs were calculated only to 2030, whereas McLoughlin was costed out to 2045. 

Anticipating objections about Esquimalt having rejected McLoughlin, Jensen asked, “What’s more important: process or taxpayers?” 

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins called Jensen’s initiative to reoccupy McLoughlin Point “appalling” and “sad,” and predicted such a motion would be confusing to the public and funders: “I can’t imagine what they are thinking.” 

In a stroke of political genius Director Colin Plant suggested an amendment that broadened Jensen’s motion, allowing for McLoughlin or Macaulay, plus Clover Point and another plant on the Westside as possible sites for treatment plants. It passed with a clear majority (voting against it were City of Victoria Councillor Marianne Alto, Desjardins, Chief Andy Thomas and Chief Robert Sam). 

Besides derailing the simple Rock Bay versus McLoughlin plan of the “McLoughlinuts,” this maneuvre opened a can of worms for Helps’ plan to “get it done.” It was clear Rock Bay might not be as popular as the new list of options in the Plant-amended-Jensen motion. Resistance to Rock Bay in the community has been firming up for months. But, determined to keep Rock Bay in the mix and find something a solid majority of her committee could agree on, Helps came back a couple of days later with a brand new motion, one she believed “captured the mood” of her committee.

It certainly captured the confusion of her committee, which increased as directors attempted to wrestle it into a shape they could “get to yes” on. At times, directors confessed to being lost in the thicket of amendments. No one seemed to know whether the original motion or amendments were being referred to staff or what was being voted on. Helps has no trouble maneuvering her mind through all the layers and intricacies of this kind of grinding committee work, but an outsider might well see it as too clever by halves.

The end result was a bulky, amorphous set of motions, the main one of which directed staff “to undertake value engineering and come back to the CALWMC with more detailed cost estimates” on six sites for various forms of treatment. ASAP. There was a sense that this might be progress. Or it might be where the process was in April, 2010 or almost anytime in the last seven years. Options up the ying yang.

If you have that dizzy, going-in-circles feeling, you’re forgiven. 

One thing was clear, even to directors. This new “plan” wasn’t in good enough shape to impress the federal government. As City of Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt said, “I don’t think it would be prudent to communicate the fairly eclectic state of the plan” to funders at this point. 

Stay tuned for the next meeting of the Core Area Liquid Waste Committee on March 9. (The motion is posted at www.focusonline.ca at the end of this article; you can also watch the two 4-hour-plus meetings on the CRD’s website—I dare you.)

 

FEAR AROUND THE LOSS OF FUNDING is driving the agenda on sewage treatment. Besides Helps’ expressed anxieties around coming up with a new plan for the March 31 deadline, Desjardins, who is also chair of the CRD, warned her fellow directors: “We are being watched by the funders.” 

Coupled with Mayor Helps relaying Tourism Victoria’s fears around Washington State possibly restricting state employees from being reimbursed for travel to Victoria until the completion of a “primary” sewage system, the fear-mongering—bordering on paranoia—stood in stark contrast to the fighting words of those citizen-activists who speak at the opening of every committee meeting. 

Mehdi Najari, for instance, referencing the “mandate” of the committee, pointed out: “Your job is not to be an enforcer for senior government wishes. Your job is to protect the citizens of your region…Prime Minister Trudeau said of infrastructure, it has to be environmentally beneficial, it has to be based on science…the most economical…and it has to be based on innovation. This proposal that you are suggesting is none of them.” He labelled the public participation process “fraudulent” and leading to fewer and fewer people attending the events. “We are tired of being used as props for your propaganda [for a decision you have already made],” he concluded.

 

AT THE FEBRUARY 26 MEETING, Teresa Coady, chair of the Technical Oversight Panel, presented that body’s final report. It’s big surprise was recommending against anaerobic digestion as the way to reduce sewage sludge. This type of treatment has been part of the plan for years—so much so that PPP Canada funding seemed to be tied to it. Yet no one at the meeting raised any questions in this regard. The TOP, instead, suggested “energy efficient drying” of sewage coupled with gasification or some other thermal processing option after tertiary level treatment.

TOP only looked at the Rock Bay plan. Coady’s other surprise was an allusion to the Jensen/Plant motion a couple of days earlier allowing for treatment at McLoughlin or Macaulay and Clover Point. She said if McLoughlin or Macaulay is back on the table—that is, a large site near outfalls—this would be preferable as it would save money and disruption. 

Further obscuring a clear direction forward is whether the CRD will commit to “integrated resource management.” Helps, as chair of the sewage committee, was instrumental in the formation of a task force on IRM and establishing the tight timelines it had to investigate options and issue a report.

IRM would bring together sewage sludge with solid municipal waste (food scraps, yard waste and whatever else ends up at the Hartland Landfill) into one “stream” subjected to a treatment like gasification. Theoretically, it has the advantage of creating usable resources—water, heat, energy—that could potentially offset some operating costs while reducing pressure on Hartland.

Chaired by Saanich Councillor Vic Derman, the IRM task force report was presented at the February 24 sewage committee meeting. Described by task force member Young as “flimsy,” the report outlined four presentations by private companies, all with limited (or no) experience integrating municipal solids with liquid waste. Young labelled them “experimental,” while Isitt called them “emerging rather than proven technologies.” One company had done only “lab scale” tests on kilograms of material. Another, the Ark Reformer, “has no completed projects in operation,” according to the report. Yet Derman and other directors were impressed  and believe such technologies might result in $250 million in savings and significant reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions.  

The CRD staff report on the task force’s report was less enthusiastic, as were some directors. Isitt raised concerns about how IRM would interfere with realizing the goal of zero waste because the technologies all require solid waste to be blended with the sewage.

View Royal Mayor David Screech observed, “When we formed a task force I presumed that we would not just be getting feedback from politicians who had listened to private industry make pitches and that we would be getting solid professional advice back. It’s absurd we are even thinking of making a decision based on that.”

A motion to receive the report for information was rejected by five directors, including Screech. In at least one past meeting Screech  called rejecting such motions “absurd.” Watching democracy in action, it does seem, at times, a bit absurd. Absurdly pointed.

Helps had earlier told me she thought IRM was “the way to go,” that “the next step is to do a request for statements of interest to the private sector…What we’ll be looking for from the private sector is financially-backed innovative solutions. Someone might say I’ve got the best technology for gasification that can integrate all these resources. Great but we’ll want to know what’s your financial backing? If it’s financially backed it’s almost the same as proven; if there’s someone willing to lend, to invest…so that will be one of the tests.”

Helps is an optimist on the tech front, too. She’s sure the price of a single tertiary plant in Rock Bay will come down from its estimated price of $1.13 billion. In our conversation she told me, “That’s what the original plan was costed at in 2007 and through refinements and design optimization it came down to $783 million.” When I pointed out that was mainly due to the project simplifying from several plants to one, she responded: “Think about how much a cell phone cost in 2009 and how large it was and how little it could do. There are new technologies that have been designed and developed and financially proven since the original plan was costed.”

Isitt, too, has used the cell phone analogy in reference to sewage treatment’s unpredictable but no doubt glorious future. After many years of waiting for that glorious future, a lot of us are doubtful.

 

THE JOSTLING AND UNCERTAINTY around sites and technology at the CRD should raise larger questions about exactly why we are going along with federal regulations that scientists say don’t take Victoria’s unique circumstances into consideration. 

Why don’t our political leaders fight harder for evidence-based policy making? What unspoken fears, agendas and partnerships are at work? Whose agenda, for instance, was behind Washington State’s threatened mini-boycott? It could have been met with a blast of science, but instead Helps cowered.

Along with marine scientists saying Victoria has been mistakenly classified as “high risk,” a recent peer-reviewed scientific study found that increasing treatment level to secondary treatment at five plants between Victoria and Vancouver would have a “negligible effect” on environmental conditions in the Salish Sea (see Focus, January 2016). 

The evidence raises other questions about land-based treatment. Our waste cannot be “disappeared.” No matter what technologies we subject it to, there are effects on the environment, including unintended ones. Dismissing those who raise the lack of an evidence-based rationale for land-based sewage treatment with clichés like “That train has left the station,” fails to note that trains almost always return to the station. A more useful dictum would be: “Follow the evidence wherever it leads.” 

When I asked Helps about the high risk classification, she said, “I’m not really interested in the debate about ‘do we need to do it, do we not need to do it?’…The mandate from Ottawa is you’re high risk, get it done by 2020.” She’s accepted her marching orders.

Yet if that billion-dollar mandate is derived from a mistaken classification, isn’t it the responsibility of CRD officials to point out the mistake, to lobby strenuously for a reassessment of the risk level—and isn’t it time to commit to a comparative, environmental cost-benefit assessment of different forms of sewage treatment? In 2012, Nils Jensen put forth a motion at the sewage committee asking 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.” (He flip-flopped on this later.)

It was viewed as a delaying tactic and defeated. The people at the table then were as fixated on getting it done as they are now. But isn’t it a missing piece of the puzzle—a foundational piece—without which citizen distrust festers?

Helps told me, “I sat face to face with Minister Sohi and said ‘there is some debate locally about whether it is a high risk receiving environment; what do you think?’And he said, ‘Well, I’ll defer that to the Minister of the Environment, but my opinion is you have a mandate to get this done.’ We haven’t received anything from Minister McKenna to the contrary, so my imagining is we have a mandate to get this done.”

My imagining is that Mayor Helps could exert her impressive will and smarts and get us a science-based mandate. That would be worth getting done.

Leslie Campbell interviewed Mayor Helps about a number of issues and had no intention of focusing solely on the sewage question—until she witnessed the February sewage committee meetings. This story is an unintended consequence of that.