Victoria's sewage fiasco and the politics of contamination

By David Broadland, July 2016

Contamination of local politics by a false pretence and a toxic promise requires primary treatment at the ballot box.

Gregoire and CampbellEnvironment Minister Barry Penner ordered the CRD to shift to land-based sewage treatment in 2006. His claim that Victoria’s outfalls were contaminating the seabed has since been proven untrue.

As well, Washington State legislators have provided evidence that Penner’s action was prompted by an unpublicized agreement between then-Premier Gordon Campbell and then-Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. Was the legislated right of Victoria electors to control their own financial resources stripped from them under false pretences?

Are there other reasons why the Province is justified in preventing Victorians from making a democratic decision through a referendum about what form of sewage treatment would be best for the community?


OVER THE NEXT 30 YEARS, Victoria-area households will pay somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1.2-$2.2 billion to fund borrowing by the Capital Regional District for land-based sewage treatment. The costs of operating those facilities over that period will add another $650-$900 million to the cost of treatment—a service that numerous local marine scientists and health officials have said will provide little or no measureable health or environmental benefit.

Once initial annual costs have been settled, electors will be expected to keep paying for this service in perpetuity. The legal right of Victoria electors to choose by a referendum whether or not they are willing to incur the debt those billions in payments would finance was taken from them in 2006. That right is generally protected by provincial legislation, but in this case the need for consent was overturned by a never-before-used section of the Environmental Management Act. That protected right now appears to have been taken under false pretences.

At the time, the Province claimed an area of the seabed around each of the city’s two marine outfalls was so contaminated that they could each be designated a “contaminated site” under BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation. It was widely accepted in the community at the time that the pollution had to be stopped and recalcitrant taxpayers could not be allowed to stand in the way of environmental protection. Then-BC Environment Minister Barry Penner justified this action on the basis of what came to be known as the MacDonald Report. That report has since been exposed as fundamentally flawed and its main conclusion just plain wrong.

Commissioned by the Province, environmental scientist Donald MacDonald had analysed four years of data gathered by the CRD about what was in the sediment on the seafloor in the area adjacent to each outfall. Although MacDonald admitted he had “insufficient data” to “thoroughly evaluate sediment quality conditions,” he felt he could do “a preliminary investigation.” Based on this preliminary evaluation, MacDonald reported that sediments at the outfalls “are sufficiently contaminated to warrant designation…as a contaminated site.” His report didn’t include an analysis of the source, or sources, of the contamination suggested by the CRD’s data. The outfalls were assumed to be the source. MacDonald included in his report a flow chart that showed the five steps in the process of determining whether such a site was “legally contaminated.” He noted that the second step had not been completed. To determine whether a site is “legally contaminated” would have required completion of the second step followed by three additional, onerous steps.

Former BC Minister of Environment Barry PennerPenner didn’t bother to complete even the second step. MacDonald’s report was dated May 2006, but by that July Penner had ordered the CRD to create a plan for treatment. His order was made under Section 24(3) of the Environmental Management Act. Its use implied that a significant environmental harm was occurring and suspension of the basic principle of elector assent was therefore justified. This allowed Penner to run around the step-by-step requirements of the Contaminated Sites Regulation, and it allowed him to order treatment without having to specify what, precisely, sewage treatment needed to stop.

Penner could have used the Abatement of Municipal Pollution section of the Environmental Management Act to order the CRD to address potential contamination, but that section would have limited such work to that “reasonably necessary to control, abate or stop the pollution,” or to remediation.

Under that section, the legal requirement for electoral approval would also have been suspended, but the changes that the CRD would be required to make would have been limited to what was “reasonably necessary” to meet provincial regulations. Penner’s ministry would have been obligated to detail precisely what was “reasonably necessary.” He didn’t do that. Instead, he used Section 24 and opened up Pandora’s box. In his order to the CRD Penner stated: “To ensure value for taxpayers, I encourage the CRD to consider new technologies and alternative financing and delivery options, including the potential for private sector development.”

Given that vague direction, it was perhaps inevitable that, 10 years later, the cost of the CRD’s considerations would have mounted to $70 million and the community would be divided into three camps over what action needed to be taken. But during that time, two facts have emerged that challenge the right of the Province to enable the CRD to proceed any further without seeking elector approval.

First, over the past ten years the CRD has continued to monitor the sediment chemistry at the outfalls. Report after report has shown that, aside from occasional exceedances of permitted levels of a few substances, neither outfall would have qualified as a “contaminated site” under the Provincial regulation.

Specifically, in 2011, environmental scientists with Golder and Associates completed an extensive study that looked at the trend in contamination at the outfalls between 1991 and 2009. They concluded the data “does not provide strong evidence that toxicity or other biological responses are expected.”

In 2012, a scientific study authored by Mark Yunker, Avrael Perreault and Chris Lowe presented information that has explained the presence of unexpectedly high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediments to the east of the Macaulay outfall. In a wonderful piece of scientific detective work, their analysis eliminated both Penner’s theory—contamination by PAHs from wastewater—and a subsequent theory that the contamination was the result of the sinking of the collier San Pedro off Brotchie Ledge in 1891. By analysing the chemical signature of the predominant PAHs in the contaminated sediments, the scientists were able to determine a more likely source: “dredged sediment containing pyrolised coal waste from a former coal gas plant in Victoria Harbour” that had been dumped there long before the outfall was even built.

At Clover Point, it turns out, there is so little sediment on the rocky bottom to test that reliable samples are difficult for scientists to even obtain. Nevertheless, the data from the last sediment survey conducted there in 2012 showed only a single reading in one location for only one substance—copper—that was above the Province’s guidelines. CRD scientist Chris Lowe told Focus that the as-yet unpublished data for the 2015 sediment survey showed the latest reading for copper at that location was a little more than one-half of the 2012 reading.

In other words, although there is seabed contamination near the outfalls, the contribution from the outfalls to that contamination is limited and there’s no evidence of worsening environmental conditions. This is what local marine scientists have been saying for several years.

The second piece of evidence that has emerged that challenges the Province’s removal of the requirement for elector consent originated in Olympia, Washington. A letter written to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps by Washington State Representative Jeff Morris and signed by 37 other Washington legislators confirmed that Penner’s order to the CRD was, in fact, motivated by an unpublicized agreement made between then-BC Premier Gordon Campbell and then-Washington Governor Christine Gregoire in June 2006. Campbell and Gregoire and their respective cabinets had met at that time as part of a process “to enhance trade opportunities and create stronger ties between the two jurisdictions.” According to the legislators, during discussions relating to Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Olympics, Gregoire told Campbell her government was unhappy about promises made about sewage treatment in Victoria that had not been kept. As a result of that, the legislators claim, Penner ordered the CRD “to make good on those promises.”

According to Morris, then, Penner’s order to Victoria was part of a trade deal. The contamination claimed by the MacDonald Report provided Penner with a plausible rationale for ordering Victoria to shift to land-based treatment. Invoking Section 24 ensured that Victoria electors would not be able to stand in the way of Campbell’s promise to Gregoire.

Last edition I wrote about the chemical contamination of Puget Sound by a burgeoning population there and the state’s dismal sewage treatment facilities. The cumulative impacts of all those people living and working around a small, constricted inlet threaten Chinook salmon and are pushing endangered southern resident orca to the brink. Washington political figures like Morris have been intent on shifting blame for the continuing deterioration of the Sound to Victoria’s outfalls. Slowing rapid population growth, regulating industry and spending billions on higher levels of sewage treatment are politically unpopular in Washington; it’s much easier to deflect constituents’ attention to Victoria’s easily misunderstood natural treatment system. Vancouver-area politicians, perhaps for the same reasons, have been happy to support the Americans’ claims.

Although MacDonald’s contamination has since been disproven by scientific study, it is still regarded in Victoria as the fundamental rationale for sewage treatment. For example, in a May 26, 2016 story in the Times Colonist about a recent development in the issue, a senior reporter noted, “The CRD has been trying to come up with a plan for sewage treatment since 2006, when an environmental assessment of the seabeds around the outfalls found them to be contaminated. As a result, the Province directed the region to put in secondary treatment.”

If there is no environmental emergency to warrant removal of elector consent for the imposition of such a heavy financial burden on the community, what else might justify such a draconian measure? Before considering the possibilities, let’s go back to the $2-$3 billion cost over 30 years mentioned above. Why would there be such a large range in the possible long-term cost? For this, too, Victorians have Penner to thank.

Penner’s encouragement to “consider new technologies,” coupled with his removal of the requirement of elector consent, has allowed local elected officials to, in effect, go crazy. In response to supposed contamination of the seafloor, “consider new technologies” exploded into schemes for recovering energy, producing drinking water and integrating liquid and solid waste streams. Each of these may be worthy goals, somewhere, but under the umbrella of Penner’s Section 24 order, none of these expensive add-ons would be subject to elector approval.

So that $2-$3 billion range in long-term cost arises from the difference between a secondary treatment project cost of $1 billion and a tertiary treatment project cost of up to $1.5 billion. Since maximum federal and provincial funding has been capped at $482.5 million (down $16 million from the original promise), the additional cost for treatment that goes beyond regulatory requirements would have a profound impact on the level of borrowing the CRD would need.

Estimated accumulative costs for 3 treatment options

With no plausible environmental emergency as justification, what is the legal basis on which the Province would allow the CRD to proceed with such heavy borrowing without elector consent? BC Ministry of Environment spokesperson David Karn quoted Section 24 of the Environmental Management Act as providing the legal basis for proceeding without elector consent. “The legislation provides local governments with the ability to waive elector approval if they have an approved Liquid Waste Management Plan,” Karn said. He confirmed that a “plan” could go beyond current regulatory requirements and include advanced treatment, biosolids treatment, energy recovery and integration of a community’s liquid and solid waste streams through integrated resource management.

What safeguard do electors have against elected representatives sending the minister a plan that goes beyond community requirement? Karn explained, “During the development and/or amendment of a Liquid Waste Management Plan, the public consultation process must provide opportunities for elector participation, and the minister must be satisfied that there has been adequate consultation during the planning process before approving the plan. Once the plan is approved, further consent by electors is not needed.”

The utter inadequacy of the safeguard of “adequate consultation,” though, was demonstrated during the attempt to locate a secondary treatment plant at Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point. In June, 2010 the CRD board, at an in camera meeting, voted to switch the official plan from a four-plant configuration to a single plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt. This was a major change—just look at what has happened since. But at that point the CRD had conducted no consultation with the broad Victoria public on this one-plant configuration and, unbelievably, none about either configuration in the community expected to host the plant, Esquimalt. The CRD had obviously not consulted with the public at all, let alone adequately, yet Penner approved the plan anyway. In 2013 the CRD underlined the uselessness of “adequate consultation” as a safeguard by secretly purchasing property on Viewfield Road close to Esquimalt and Victoria West neighbourhoods. It then attempted to justify this as a good location for a massive sewage sludge biodigester, infrastructure that is known to be subject to explosion.

The Province is evidently unconcerned about stripping local electors of their legally-enshrined right to reject such arbitrary, unjustified and dangerous actions by elected officials. But are there other overriding issues beyond the “contaminated site” rationale that clearly justify such a stripping away of community control over spending for sewage treatment?


Do health safety issues require removal of elector consent?

It was hot and dry on the south coast of British Columbia in August 2014, the kind of weather that drives thousands to beaches in Vancouver and Victoria to escape the heat. But even as the temperatures peaked and the waters of English Bay and West Vancouver’s coves warmed enough to encourage people to wade or swim, Vancouver public health officials were busily posting warning signs at many saltwater beaches around Vancouver’s shoreline. Starting in late July and running into early September that year, measurement of fecal coliforms and E coli in the water showed levels had spiked far above those considered safe for contact with human skin. At Sunset Beach on August 7, 2014, the level of bacteria in the water was nearly seven times the maximum considered safe for human contact. On August 29, the level of fecal coliform and E coli in the central part of False Creek was 11 times higher than safe. Beaches along the shoreline of West Vancouver, from Ambleside Beach near the Lions Gate Bridge out to Eagle Harbour near Horseshoe Bay were all found to be two to four times higher than safe.

At the same time, in the surface waters above the Clover Point sewage outfall in Victoria, the data recorded by all 14 floating water-quality monitoring stations showed that levels of fecal coliform and Enterococci stayed well below the levels required by the Province for shellfish harvesting—a considerably higher standard than that used for safe contact with human skin. The Capital Regional District’s records, published in its annual report on the Clover Point and Macaulay Point outfalls for 2014, show the surface waters above the Macaulay outfall that summer were even cleaner.

Why were Vancouver swimmers at such high risk of contracting disease from water-borne bacteria in August 2014, yet, at the same time, the surface waters off Victoria, immediately adjacent to its two sewage outfalls, were clean enough, according to the Province’s water quality guidelines, that seafood harvested from those waters could be safely eaten?

The source of the bacteria infesting the waters and beaches of Vancouver that summer was undoubtedly human sewage, but no single source was identified by health authorities in Vancouver. The Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment Plant, located beneath the Lions Gate Bridge, discharges 90 million litres a day of primary-level treated effluent at First Narrows. That’s the same volume as Victoria’s two outfalls, combined, discharge. Hydrographic modelling has shown that an oil spill at First Narrows would slosh back and forth through the Narrows many times before most of it washed up on Vancouver area beaches—the same beaches that were posted by health authorities during the bacteria breakout. Was the Lions Gate plant the culprit?

The source could also have been one of the 11 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that discharge into Burrard Inlet. During periods of heavy rain, sewage can flow from sewers into storm drains and then to short stormwater outfalls that discharge close to the shoreline. CSOs act as a relief valve to prevent sewage from backing up into homes or overflowing across land during peak rain events. This situation exists throughout North America and is not resolved by building sewage treatment plants. That’s because the flow of sewage into storm drains in a CSO event occurs upstream of sewage treatment plants.

Public health authorities for Metro Vancouver carefully avoided—at least publicly—singling out any possible source. If such an event had happened in Victoria, the indignant furor from Washington State would have prompted, at the very least, the threat of a tourism boycott from Seattle and yet another Victoria-uses-international-waters-as-a-toilet editorial from the Post Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly.

But the long-term experience with Victoria’s two deep-water marine outfalls has shown they reliably provide a high level of public health safety. Six past and current public health officers—Dr Richard Stanwick, Dr John Millar, Dr Shaun Peck, Dr Brian Emerson, Dr Brian Allen and Dr Kelly Barnard—have all testified: “There is no measurable public health risk from Victoria’s current method of offshore liquid waste disposal.”

There is, however, a health risk posed by Victoria’s numerous CSOs. A very heavy rain in a summer month—an unusual occurrence in Victoria—could cause CSOs that contaminate Victoria’s shoreline at a time when people are also likely to want to be in contact with the water. This source of bacterial contamination is common in fall and winter months when there’s more rain. But the CRD’s proposed plan for secondary treatment at McLoughlin Point would have had almost no impact on this risk. That plan included construction of an attenuation tank in Gordon Head. That tank would have eliminated the necessity for having an unscreened CSO outfall on Saanich’s Finnerty Cove, and would have reduced the occurrence of CSOs at some Oak Bay and Victoria stormwater outfalls. But the CSO performance of most of the system’s stormwater outfalls would not have been improved.

The Province is responsible for enforcing water quality guidelines with respect to public health safety, and its reliance on the issue of chemical contamination at Victoria’s outfalls is a matter of public record. Simply put, the deep-water outfalls don’t pose a public health safety issue that could justify the removal of elector assent for borrowing for sewage treatment.


Do federal regulations override the right of elector consent?

New federal regulations developed by Environment Canada and enforced by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans rated Victoria’s marine-based treatment system as being at “high risk” to endanger the health of fish and humans who eat those fish. Under the regulations, Victoria is required to treat its sewage effluent to a secondary standard by December 2020. Those regulations don’t include any provision to override the right of Victorians to approve or disapprove any long-term borrowing the CRD would need to do to meet the requirements of the regulations. Do they provide moral support for the Province’s removal of that right? Is there actual evidence of fish being killed or made unsafe for human consumption by the effluent? If there was, this would provide support for the Province’s removal of the requirement of elector consent.

Before I delve into that, let’s consider how the new federal regulations measured risk and why Victoria scored a “high risk” classification. The new regulations use a point system for assessing risk based on “effluent quality” and the characteristics of the receiving waters.

In terms of effluent quality, four characteristics are assessed by the regulation. Victoria passed on two of those—it was well under benchmarks for the maximum amount of chlorine and ammonia allowed in the undiluted discharge—but failed in terms of the amount of total suspended solids and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand. It’s important to understand that, other than those four characteristics of effluent quality, the federal regulations make no judgment about the many substances in Victoria’s sewage—like dissolved metals or PAHs—that could be deleterious to the health of fish.

Victoria received the best mark possible in terms of the physical geography of the receiving waters, even though the federal regulations give no consideration to such essential factors as water temperature, salinity, rate of mixing, the amount of naturally occurring dissolved oxygen or the speed of currents. These are all characteristics that local marine scientists have identified as providing Victoria with its unique potential for using natural processes to treat its sewage. In spite of all these highly favourable factors, the regulation’s emphasis on measurements of total suspended solids and oxygen demand inside the outfalls pushed Victoria into a high risk classification. Paradoxically, the more successful Victorians are at water conservation, the more dangerous their sewage is judged to be for fish—at least by these regulations.

Local marine scientists have argued that suspended solids and oxygen demand are not an issue in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but Environment Canada has refused to listen. Remarkably, DFO scientists published a peer-reviewed scientific study in 2015 that concluded secondary treatment would have “negligible effect” on environmental conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As mentioned above, DFO is the federal department charged with enforcing the new effluent regulations.

In communities around Puget Sound, a body of water that has much less favourable physical conditions than the Strait of Juan de Fuca for breaking down solids and mitigating oxygen demand, permits have been issued for municipal sewage and industrial discharges that delivers six times as much solids and oxygen demand as Victoria’s outfalls. Why isn’t that a problem in Puget Sound?

The federal regulations, then, are demonstrably inadequate at assessing “risk.” So let’s go back to the question of whether Victoria’s effluent is killing fish or making them unsafe for human consumption, thus justifying the removal of the requirement of elector consent.

There have been no reported fish kills in marine waters off Victoria, but laboratory testing of the rate of mortality for rainbow trout immersed in effluent at 100 percent concentration for 96 hours, as required by the regulations, has shown Victoria’s effluent before discharge to be “acutely toxic.” Proponents of artificial sewage treatment have made much of this result, but the usefulness of this test is dubious.

The federal test uses a methodology that has been rejected by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The method amounts to testing the lethality of car engine exhaust for canaries by placing a canary in a sealable container filled with 100 percent car exhaust, closing off the container for 96 hours, and then checking to see how well the bird survived. Don’t try this at home.

Is there evidence that fish are being contaminated by the discharge from the outfalls, making them unfit for human consumption? Local residents continue to troll and cast for fish in the area between the outfalls at, for example, Ogden Point Breakwater. But the question of whether those fish are being made unsafe for human consumption by the outfalls’ discharge is made moot by the fact that there are so many sources of contamination in the area, most of which are the federal government’s responsibility. I’ll come back to this point later on, but let’s consider, for a moment, the interaction between science and politics around the question of trace contaminants in our local waters. 

While local scientists have made the case for several years that the federal regulations fail to assess any real risk to the local marine environment, the federal government’s only public response—a comment piece in a local paper written by North Vancouver Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson last May—presumed the CRD would build two tertiary-level treatment plants, going well beyond the federal requirement of secondary treatment. As mentioned above, the new federal regulations confine themselves to how much ammonia and chlorine are in the discharge and have nothing to say about such contaminants as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, or microplastics. So Wilkinson’s pitch for tertiary treatment was as much a condemnation of the inadequacy of the federal regulations as anything else. Moreover, by the time Wilkinson’s letter had been published, the CRD had already stumbled over the question of whether one of those tertiary plants could even be sited at Clover Point.

While Wilkinson made it clear the Trudeau government would favour CRD residents spending more of their own money for a higher level of treatment, he wasn’t offering any more federal money to support that. The entire burden of a higher level of treatment would fall on local ratepayers, who would have no recourse to approve or disapprove the required borrowing. Yet in Wilkinson’s own riding of North Vancouver, federal funding for a new secondary treatment plant to replace the existing Lions Gate primary plant was announced in the recent federal budget. Why would secondary treatment be good enough for Wilkinson’s constituents but not good enough for Victoria? If secondary treatment is good enough for Vancouver, why shouldn’t Victorians be given the right to decide by referendum whether it’s good enough for them? It is, after all, their money. 

Wilkinson and BC Environment Minister Mary Polak don’t have a good answer to that question. Moreover, even a cursory examination of physical circumstances in Victoria and certain facts about these two levels of treatment would lead a reasonable person to question why the community shouldn’t be given the right to vote about secondary treatment, too.

In the long community discussion in Victoria about what level of treatment should be built, those advocating the highest level of treatment have focussed on contaminants whose long-term risk is unknown—and in many cases unknowable—simply because those substances are in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at such low concentrations that their presence in the water column can’t even be detected. Some of those substances—like PCBs and microplastics—have been banned, or are in the process of being banned, by the Government of Canada. But there are more tangible reasons for concern about secondary treatment than its inability to remove all contaminants. For example, consider the concern about copper entering marine waters through wastewater.

First, what’s wrong with a little more copper in the water? Washington’s Department of Ecology notes, “Copper is a special concern. While people may not be harmed by small amounts of copper, even low levels of the chemical are a significant threat to salmon and other fish in Puget Sound. Copper interferes with salmon’s sense of smell, which reduces their ability to avoid predators, find their way back to their birthplace to spawn, and find mates.” A common assumption is that sewage treatment gets rid of—or greatly reduces—such problematic contaminants as copper. The actual case is more complicated.

Data published by Metro Vancouver for the Annacis Island and Lulu Island secondary treatment plants shows that they produce a higher concentration of dissolved copper in the effluent coming out of the plants than was in the sewage that went into the plants. Got that? The total amount of copper may be reduced, but the amount of dissolved copper actually increases. This effect is common with sewage treatment plants around the globe. But why does this matter?

Here’s what the US Environmental Protection Agency says about the dissolved state of metals: “The primary mechanism for toxicity to organisms that live in the water column is by adsorption to or uptake across the gills; physiological process requires metal to be in dissolved form. This is not to say that particulate metal is nontoxic, only that particulate metal appears to exhibit substantially less toxicity than does dissolved metal.”

In other words, the federal government’s requirement for secondary treatment—put in place to protect fish—could increase the immediate hazard to fish posed by copper compared with the marine-based treatment system now in place.

The data for the Annacis and Lulu plants show other dissolved metals of concern, including cadmium, increasing in concentration from influent to effluent. Both plants are discharging copper and cadmium in concentrations above the provincial water quality guidelines.

As well, research done by scientist James Meador in Washington suggests other ways in which secondary treatment’s purported benefit to fish is illusory. Meador has shown that juvenile Chinook salmon that transit estuaries on which secondary treatment plants are located have a 40 percent higher rate of mortality than those that don’t have to transit such estuaries. He has also connected chemical compounds, such as cocaine and ibuprofen, found in the tissue of juvenile salmon in estuaries downstream from secondary treatment plants, with the effluent released from those plants. Secondary treatment plants are obviously no panacea for what ails wild salmon.

On both the issue of dissolved metals and trace contaminants, then, the benefits of secondary treatment to fish aren’t as clear as Environment Canada’s new regulations would have us believe. 

In Victoria’s case this may sound like an obvious argument for tertiary treatment, but there are scientific doubts about whether a higher level of treatment would be effective in reducing the trace contaminants Meador found were getting through secondary plants. UBC engineering professor Dr Don Mavinic, considered one of BC’s top experts on sewage treatment, told Focus, “The fact is that there really isn’t any effective technology out there in the marketplace yet to deal with these other contaminants. It’s coming, but it isn’t there. This is a very young science still. There’s a huge amount of research going on globally right now on this subject, including here at UBC, but the jury is still out.”

So while there may be a strong current of thought in Victoria that those contaminants should be removed, there’s no scientific or engineering consensus that it can actually be done. Why, then, shouldn’t Victorians have the right to listen to the evidence and decide for themselves whether or not they want to pay for such uncertain benefits?

Meanwhile, there is a huge pool of highly toxic chemicals contaminating Victoria’s near-shore waters that could be cleaned up using technology that’s already been proven: excavators and dump trucks. And, ironically, this is a situation for which the federal government is solely responsible.


Victoria’s 376 Federal Contaminated Sites

In Wilkinson’s call-out to Victoria to put the question of sewage treatment behind them, he quoted Ken Ashley, an expert on the effects of wastewater on receiving environments: “Although the receiving water dilutes Victoria’s sewage to low concentrations, the marine food web will re-concentrate certain pollutants via food web biomagnification to the point where southern resident orcas are at risk, and classified as toxic waste when dead ones wash up on our beaches.”

No reasonable person would question that some contaminants bioaccumulate and biomagnify. But the question is, which sources of those contaminants is most important to address first? Local marine scientists have placed a higher priority on clean-up of near-shore contamination from stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows than the wastewater going through the outfalls. Yet these two problems in Victoria will remain unimproved by either secondary or tertiary treatment. Near-shore contamination in Victoria is, in fact, an exceptional problem. That’s largely because Victoria has been the home of Canada’s Pacific Coast naval fleet in Esquimalt Harbour for well over a century. Over that time, military-related activity has created a legacy of highly-toxic chemical contamination of both marine sediments, soil and groundwater, from Colwood to Victoria Harbour.

Progress on cleaning up the 376 contaminated sites in the Victoria area that are listed on the Federal Contaminated Sites Registry is very slow. Not all the sites are military-related, of course. One non-military case—Site 17348008 on Rock Bay—is in the final stages of remediation of 207,404 cubic meters of contaminated material that contained metals, metalloids and organometallic compounds.The site has been contaminating groundwater for many decades, and that groundwater has been free to leach into Middle Harbour and from there to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the marine food web.

But Rock Bay is just one of dozens of large, highly-contaminated sites around Victoria Harbour, Esquimalt Harbour, and numerous other bays and coves, that are—or are suspected of—leaching highly toxic substances into groundwater and near-shore waters. There are some surprises on this list. Both Discovery Island and Trial Island are home to contaminated sites. The federal registry indicates there are 2899 cubic metres of soil on Discovery Island contaminated with metals, metalloids, organometallic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and petroleum hydrocarbons. On the southernmost of the Trial Islands, Site 17330001 contains 3060 cubic metres of soil contaminated with metals, metalloids, organometallic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons. Both of these are likely contaminating near-shore waters.

But these are small problems compared with some of the many military-related contaminated sites, especially in Esquimalt Harbour. Some of those are large and contain all the scarey stuff: Site 17410007, for instance, better known as Esquimalt Graving Dock, has 185,930 cubic meters of sediment that contains everything mentioned in the sites above, but also PCBs, dioxins, furans and pesticides. The federal government has listed many of these as “high priority for action,” but has announced no plan to actually do anything beyond further study. Many other sites are in the preliminary investigation stage, so there’s no comprehensive understanding of the extent of the problem, how long it would take to remediate all these sites, or how much that would cost. The Rock Bay site took 11 years and $138 million to clean up. It could be a century or more before remediation of all the military-related sites is substantially complete. Meanwhile, contamination of groundwater and near-shore marine waters will continue.

Wilkinson wants Victorians to put behind them the issue of spending $2-$3 billion of local money on tertiary treatment that might or might not remove trace contaminants from the water even while the federal government drags its own feet on dealing with its long, long list of highly-contaminated sites. Does this make sense? We don’t know the answer to that question because Penner’s order was motivated by a promise to Washington, not contamination. That made it unlikely that public consideration of the broader context of chemical contamination—and how to most effectively reduce it—would ever take place.


Nothing computes

Penner’s politically-motivated haste to condemn both outfalls as contaminated sites also obscured an important fact about Victoria’s marine-based treatment system that has been observed by scientists: physical conditions at Clover Point are significantly better at reducing the risk of contamination of the seafloor than at Macaulay Point. The waters off Clover Point have stronger currents to disperse discharged solids and there is a rocky bottom. The bottom near the Macaulay outfall contains much more sediment, which acts like a sponge for such contaminants as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Since contamination of seafloor sediments was the only physical rationale given by Penner for ordering Victoria to build land-based treatment facilities, one would have expected that the best location for an outfall would have been a primary concern of engineers charged with planning a new system.

Instead, the location of a central plant at McLoughlin Point was chosen simply because land was available there. That plant’s single outfall would have discharged a volume equivalent to the combined flows of the Clover Point and Macaulay Point outfalls. Since secondary treatment removes only some of the contaminants, an outfall with twice the discharge would still have meant a lot of potential contamination.

In fact, the site where engineers planned to put the diffuser of a new McLoughlin outfall is already contaminated by historical dumping of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and likely other contaminants. According to the MacDonald Report, the location could already be designated a contaminated site under BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation. It’s not hard to imagine what mischief some future politicians could make of that situation: Victoria’s ancient treatment plant at McLoughlin Point is contaminating the seabed! We must find a new site for a new plant!

Unlikely? See Campbell, Gregoire, Penner et al, 2006.

When a very significant, long-term allocation of community resources is going to be made, it’s obviously unwise to do that for reasons that aren’t connected to some identified and agreed-upon need in the community. In this case, the Liberals’ promised allocation of Victoria’s resources was made because Vancouver politicians desired a successful Olympics. As a consequence, most of the planning that has been done in Victoria—including where a super outfall would be located—makes no sense. Nothing computes.


To the ballot box we must go

The Liberals removed the legislated requirement of elector consent for borrowing for sewage treatment for a good reason. Victorians had already shown they understood the high value of the natural treatment system they have been blessed with, and were unlikely to give that advantage up at the ballot box.

In 1992, Victorians were given the opportunity to choose through a plebiscite whether they wanted to use preliminary treatment, primary treatment, or secondary treatment to regulate the impact of their sewage on the environment. The “preliminary treatment” option came with the proviso that the CRD would develop a source control program to reduce contaminants of concern. That source control program would cost money. At the ballot box, 57 percent chose source control and preliminary treatment. The rest of the vote was evenly split between the other two options. Afterwards, the CRD developed what has become one of the most advanced source-control programs regulating municipal wastewater in North America.

The actual physical impact on the environment of that choice is now evident in the numerous studies conducted by scientists from the CRD, DFO and private companies over the 24 years since. An extensive 2011 study by Golder and Associates on what contaminants were in the wastewater being discharged by the outfalls—a companion to the previously-mentioned Golder study on sediments that examined data gathered between 1991 and 2011—found “evidence of stable or decreasing concentrations and loadings of substances in the wastewater stream.” Golder’s scientists noted, “Source control initiatives appear to have yielded significant benefits in terms of concentrations and loadings of priority contaminants.”

Interestingly, this latter study was not shown to elected officials at the CRD until April 2013, and I can find no evidence that its findings were ever publicized by the CRD or Victoria media. Some of you will recall that in late 2012, Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen called 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.” At the time that Jensen and other elected officials were calling for that study, the CRD was sitting on the Golder research that had found source control was working. Jensen’s bid for that study was unsuccessful.

The obvious takeaway from Golder’s examination is that an expanded source control program would provide increased reductions of contaminants. This course of action would save Victorians billions of dollars over the next 30 years, money that could be spent in areas where a need has actually been proven. But the Province clearly doesn’t want that to happen. They recently removed the last vestige of local control over the issue by ousting elected CRD officials from the process.

After a year-long search by the CRD for an alternative to McLoughlin Point, the elected directors suddenly found themselves trapped between two unpopular ideas: McLoughlin and Rock Bay. They tried to find their way out of that fix by proposing two plants located immediately upstream of each of the existing outfalls. That move, in turn, prompted a “Save Clover Point” neighbourhood revolt and the project was on the edge of either complete collapse or a return to McLoughlin Point. The Province quickly moved in and threatened the elected officials with the loss of the aforementioned $482.5 million in provincial and federal funding unless critical decisions about the project were handed over to an appointed board. The elected directors, faced with being held responsible for losing $482.5 million and knowing that agreement amongst them was unlikely, capitulated. The appointed board will now decide what form of treatment to use and where a plant—or plants—will be located. 

The chair of that board, lawyer Jane Bird, is reputed to be a close personal friend of Gordon Campbell. During the time Campbell has been Canadian High Commissioner to the UK in London, Bird received an appointment with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development as an “Attaché.” An Attaché is a person on the staff of an ambassador with a specific area of responsibility. Under Campbell, Bird served as “Project Manager” for the $18 million redecoration of Canada House in London. Incidently, the other main decision-maker involved on that project, besides Campbell, was Noel Best, who is a principal of Stantec’s Vancouver office.

Now Bird is in control of Victoria’s sewage treatment project, a project Campbell ordered and one in which Stantec’s costly involvement has been controversial. The connections between Bird, Stantec and Campbell will do little to assuage the concern in Victoria that taxpayers here are being forced to underwrite debts incurred by Campbell during Vancouver’s Olympic party.

A lot of people think the new board will choose secondary treatment at McLoughlin Point. No matter. At some point, whatever they propose has to come back to the CRD’s elected directors for their approval. With the information that has now emerged about the dubious origins of Penner’s 2006 order, it’s hard to see how those directors would believe they have the moral authority to approve a project without first seeking electors’ consent in a referendum.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He believes contamination of democracy by toxic political promises that are unrelated to a community’s real needs does require primary treatment—at the ballot box.

MacDonald Report 2006.pdf1.39 MB
Yunker et al - 2012 - PAHs in coal and CRD sediments.pdf1.75 MB
Golder (2011) Sediment Trend Assessment for Macaulay and Clover Point Outfalls (1990-2009) FINAL.PDF1.56 MB
MOE Letter.pdf207.3 KB
Golder (2013) Substances in Macaulay and Clover Point Wastewater and the Saanich Peninsula Wastewater Biosolids.pdf7.46 MB