Has the CRD unintentionally pushed the reset button on the sewage treatment plan?

By Leslie Campbell and David Broadland, May 2013

Its $17-million purchase of property in a residential neighbourhood as a possible location for biodigesters has critics—and at least two NDP candidates in the BC election—calling for a rethink of the entire plan.

The day after we attended a Victoria West Community Association meeting, a massive explosion destroyed a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, where 15 people were killed. Most Victorians wouldn’t have made any connection between the explosion in Texas and a proposed sewage treatment facility in Victoria. But along with a hundred or so other citizens at that meeting—called to discuss a CRD proposal to locate several anaerobic biodigesters in a residential neighbourhood—we heard land economist Chris Corps say such biodigesters occasionally blow up. There’s nothing like the possibility, however faint, of an explosion in your neighbourhood to focus the mind.

It was a bad night for the CRD at the meeting, which was organized to express opposition to whatever plan it had in mind for Viewfield Road. Perhaps wishing to spare themselves a public thrashing, no one from that organization admitted to being present when someone asked out loud if the CRD was present. The CRD recently purchased, without so much as a whiff of public consultation, a 1.7-hectare property from Wilson Foods for $17 million. But had a CRD representative shown up, not only would they have heard Corps’ assessment of the very low but nevertheless measureable probability of exploding biodigesters, but also the negative impact such a facility would have on air quality and property values.

They would have heard community activist Kim Bellefontaine excoriate the CRD for the flawed public engagement process it used throughout its campaign to promote a plan for a centralized sewage treatment plant; they would also have heard Corps critique the CRD for not conducting a proper life cycle cost analysis on their plan; they would have heard Maurine Karagianis, running for her third term as NDP MLA for Esquimalt-Royal Roads, express dismay at the process used by CRD to come up with what she implied was a 20th-century solution to the sewage treatment problem; and they would have heard Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins say her council would not necessarily agree to rezone the Viewfield property.

If someone from the CRD had been at that meeting they might have even heard an almost audible “click” as the whole political dynamic around the treatment plan seemed to shift. After Mayor Desjardins suggested her council would decline to rezone the Viewfield Road property, Karagianis said, “I will absolutely not tolerate any overruling of individual communities’ zoning.”


What the CRD says

Why did the CRD purchase the Viewfield property? Why are they even considering it? Initially the CRD’s Biosolids Energy Centre (BEC) was to be built at the Hartland Landfill site—and this is still a possibility—where it would have more room and face fewer neighbourhood issues. CRD’s Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee Chair Denise Blackwell has suggested the main reason to consider building the BEC in Esquimalt is to eliminate disruption caused by constructing dual 18-kilometre pipelines to Hartland from the proposed McLoughlin Point sewage treatment plant. But given the $17-million price tag of the Viewfield site, she told the Times Colonist, there were no cost savings. “It’s a wash,” she said.

That calculation doesn’t quite equate with previous estimates of the pipelines’ cost. Saanich Councillor Vic Derman, who has been a member of the sewage committee since its inception in 2006, told Focus the pipeline to Hartland was expected to cost $30-40 million.

The CRD’s Andy Orr provided Focus with a document that appeared intended to counter comments Corps made at the Vic West meeting. That document noted, “It is not unusual for sewage treatment plants to be located near residential areas.” It gave as examples Vernon, Nanaimo and Kelowna. The document stated, “In the case of Kelowna, in addition to residential neighbourhoods there is an elementary school, a middle school, a high school and a college in close proximity to the sewage treatment plant, which because of its older design, has open tanks. The design proposed for both the wastewater treatment plant and the biosolids digestion facility are enclosed with state of the art odour control.”

The CRD’s examples, however, don’t easily compare with the Viewfield Road site. They are all several decades old. Kelowna’s treatment centre, built in 1982, doesn’t include a biodigester; Vernon’s does, but it’s located 600 feet from the nearest residence and, besides, would be processing a much lower volume of sludge than would digesters at Viewfield Road. Vernon’s plant services a population of about 40,000 and has been on that site, in one form or another, since the 1930s. In Nanaimo, population 85,000, the 1970s-era treatment plant is in a suburban setting; the nearest home is 300 feet from the digester. 

The CRD has not made public their plans for the site so it’s impossible to say how close the nearest homes might be to biodigesters. That’s expected to be made clear when the CRD holds “five open houses to present the facts about biosolids digestion facilities and the advantages and disadvantages of the two potential sites [Hartland and Viewfield]” starting on May 30.


Do biodigesters make good neighbours?

With no one from the CRD willing to address the meeting, the Victoria West Community Association organizers invited land economist Chris Corps to explain what biosolid treatment plants generally entail, along with their potential problems.

Corps is the co-author (with Stephen Salter, Jon O’Riordan and Patrick Lucey) of the 2008 provincial study Resources from Waste which examined recovering resources—including water, heat and electricity—from sewage treatment in the CRD, and developed a business case for a distributed network of 32 small sites where costs would be recouped through sales of recovered resources. The CRD rejected the plan, saying it was too costly, though many, like Corps—who has advised Metro Vancouver and other municipalities in BC and Alberta on maximizing recovery of resources from waste and worked with such developments as Dockside Green, False Creek in Vancouver and Canary Wharf in London—have not given up that fight.

Corps described how, after secondary treatment at the planned McLoughlin Point plant, the residual biosolids would have water added to them so they could be pumped through a pipeline to the biosolids treatment facility. There, the slurry of water, sewage and “bugs” would be dewatered and the resulting sludge processed though an anaerobic digester. Corps drew a simplified picture of what a digester is: “Very basically a very large tin in which the bugs eat the sewage, and the bugs pass wind. The wind is methane…which can be captured and upgraded to do different things with it.” The water that’s removed in the process would be pumped back through a second set of pipes to the McLoughlin plant.  

Corps noted, “Most of the time, these things operate well, and are a totally acceptable solution. But most of the time they are not put in residential neighbourhoods,” and showed slides of a number of such facilities in more rural areas. Citing a statement from an association for anaerobic digesters in the UK, he claimed that there had been 62 accidents in such facilities, some of which were serious, with three deaths in Germany and one in Britain, though these were mostly within the site boundaries. 

Besides possible truck noise (from delivery of kitchen waste), occasional odours, and the slight chance of explosion, Corps predicted market uncertainty for real estate values, particularly in the short term.


Lack of public consultation

The CRD’s commitment to engage meaningfully with citizens during their sewage treatment planning process was questioned at the meeting by several speakers. That the CRD would choose to pay $17 million for a property with an assessed value of $12.9 million (the land is assessed at $5.4 million; the existing building, which would have to be demolished, is valued at $7.5 million) in the hope that the CRD could use it for a purpose that it could have foreseen would be highly controversial, suggests a disinterest in what the public thinks.

Kim Bellefontaine of the Esquimalt Residents Association told the meeting that the $17 million the CRD paid for the site is not eligible for shared funding with other levels of government. Bellefontaine has been a vocal critic of the public engagement strategy used by the CRD to arrive at the current plan, describing it as a “completely flawed public process in general, not just with this site.” “Consultation,” she noted “is supposed to happen early; it’s supposed to happen before important decisions are made. And in fact the Environmental Management Act has very strong requirements for public consultation on sewage plans—and that’s because, once they are approved, there’s no appeal process whatsoever. So the province is relying on consultation being done right.”

The smallish size of the Viewfield site means the facility would likely fully occupy it, and being right in the middle of a built-up neighbourhood, the plant would in effect have little or no buffer. Bellefontaine pointed out that Alberta demands a 300-meter buffer around anaerobic digesters. 

Desjardins outlined the four pillars for community consultation that the CRD’s Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee had come up with “so we would get the very best public consultation process.” These pillars included: outreach and education; community dialogue; community validation; neighbourhood-based siting workshops.

“We have not followed this process,” said Desjardins. “We have absolutely not followed this process with the Viewfield site. We have spent $17 million of your dollars and then put it on the table for discussion.”


So much dissatisfaction

The biodigester controversy has refired the overall controversy over whether the CRD’s plan for one centralized secondary treatment plant (a second plant would be built in Colwood sometime down the road) at McLoughlin Point represents 21st-century “best practices.” That was evident at the Vic West meeting where dissatisfaction was expressed about practically every aspect of the plan.

Desjardins complained that there is no water reclamation or re-use in CRD resource recovery plans. (The CRD’s Andy Orr told Focus, “Our region has an abundance of fresh water which is very unusual, but makes water recovery not really worth it.” This is a vastly different message than the CRD was putting out just a few years ago when they were stressing the need for water conservation.)

Desjardins also noted there’s little energy recovery planned. Biogas and fertilizer will be produced along with fuel pucks for cement kilns, but she added, “We’ve heard from cement kilns ‘we don’t really want them’.” In all, claims Desjardins, the $783-million project, will only capture $3 million a year through resource recovery, adding, “and it will cost you $13-15 million a year to run these plants. The dollars don’t make sense…we need to continue to push for something better.” (According to CRD documents, operating and maintenance costs for a centralized treatment plant and a bioenergy centre would be about $15 million per year.)

Corps gave special attention to the CRD’s unwillingness to spend even $20,000 on a full and updated life cycle cost analysis for the massive project. Flashing an image of a document on his overhead projector, Corps called it “a smoking gun.” “It’s a public document; that document said 12 months ago almost exactly, that $20,000 should be spent on trying to get a business case to understand what the economics should be. Right now my math tells me that they’ve spent $50 million so far but they don’t have a $20,000 business case.”

Although he didn’t go into details at the Vic West meeting, Corps’ dissection of the 13-year life cycle cost analysis that was done by the CRD in 2011 criticizes it on a number of bases: it only considered the first 13 years of operation of a plant that’s expected to be operational for 50 years; the analysis omitted 63 percent of project costs; and it omitted 48 percent of debt costs. Corps’ dissection points out that the 2011 life cycle cost analysis assumed population projections that the CRD has since said are “unlikely.” That suggests the original life cycle cost analysis was based on a plant that would have 33 percent overcapacity, and that would result in the expenditure of $267 million in avoidable costs.

At the end of his presentation Corps said, “I would be less restrained, but the media would have to leave the room.” He carefully stated: “I’m a former government director, designated from treasury board. This is not appropriate. This is not how the province works; this is not how business works. Sorry to say but this is incorrect…I’m terribly sorry that you’re living the experience. I would not have chosen this and I advocated against it.”


What a new government might mean

The problems the CRD’s current plan might face under a new provincial government became  clear later in the meeting. Maurine Karagianis, running for her third term as NDP MLA for the Esquimalt-Royal Roads constituency, expressed dismay at the process and the results thus far. “It seems to me eight years into the process, we are not clear on what we’re doing, where we’re doing it, and what the best solutions are…It seems pretty evident to me that we have not found the best practice.” 

Of the Viewfield site in particular, Karagianis labelled it the “wrong choice for our community, the wrong location,” and expressed concern over “the method by which the CRD purchased that property and imposed it into this process.”  

She also made clear her scepticism about the CRD’s plan, noting “We need to have 21st century solutions and not try to build on last century’s solutions in such a nonconsultative way as the CRD has done.” 

Karagianis argued the province has a responsibility to demand the CRD meet the agreed on requirements for resource recovery, a good business plan, and full consultation—and left little doubt that, if elected, she and her NDP colleagues would be doing just that. She said she’d received assurances from the federal government that their funding will be there even if the project is delayed.

Desjardins chafes at the presumption of rezoning inherent in the CRD’s plans: “Suggesting that Viewfield is the appropriate site for the biosolids really assumes that McLoughlin Point will be rezoned for the liquid site,” Desjardins said. “So it presupposes a whole process that hasn’t been done yet. The zoning process is the right of a municipality. It is within the Community Charter one of our highest rights. And it is being presupposed that it will be rezoned and we will move forward. That is wrong.” 

And it sounded like Karagianis had her back when she assured the meeting that if she was part of the provincial government, “I will absolutely not tolerate any overruling of individual communities’ zoning.”

As Focus went to press, Carol James, NDP candidate in the BC election for Victoria- Beacon Hill and the party’s platform co-chair, confirmed Karagianis’ position. James told the Times Colonist’s Rob Shaw that the CRD needed to “go back and consult again, go back and re-look at the plan, go back and look at what other possibilities might be there.”

Leslie Campbell and David Broadland are the editor and publisher, respectively, of Focus.