CRD: Get your shit together and hold a referendum

By Leslie Campbell, July/August 2013

Healthy democracy is more critical than secondary sewage treatment.

The CRD has spent $50 million towards planning the area’s liquid waste treatment facilities, and the most obvious thing they have to show for it so far is a distrustful, angry public. Perhaps it’s time for an intervention—in the form of direct democracy.

I attended a couple of the recent open houses the CRD hosted about the Biosolids Energy Centre component of the plan. CRD bureaucrats were out in force, explaining the pros and cons of the Hartland vs Viewfield sites. So were citizens from Esquimalt and Victoria West who feel victimized by the possibility of a large sewage plant in the midst of their family-friendly neighbourhood. Councillor Shellie Gudgeon described the situation as “an issue of social justice.”

Yet the Hartland site poses other issues, including those incurred by sewage making a 36-kilometer round trip through pipelines. The “choice” between two highly problematic sites for biosolids treatment within the larger plan involving a massive liquid waste plant at the entrance to Victoria’s harbour, with a $783 million price tag, is causing those of us who’ve long been in favour of sewage treatment to demand a change of course.

On the same evening (June 24) that over 200 protesters marched from Victoria West to the open house at Burnside Gorge Community Centre, Esquimalt council unanimously called for Denise Blackwell to resign as chair of the CRD’s sewage committee and as vice-chair of the CRD. They also agreed to proceed to public hearings (July 8-10) to consider the CRD’s application to rezone land at McLoughlin Point to allow for the liquid waste treatment plant.

Will these open houses and hearings make a difference—or is it all just elaborate window dressing—faux consultation? Have decisions already been made? Will all those survey sheets and letters and presentations to the CRD carry any weight? Many doubt it. But citizens are not giving up, and they are a force to be reckoned with. At the open houses I met many residents who have bloomed into activists and sewage treatment researchers. Their words and numbers should make a difference.

Most of those I spoke with at recent events are not (as Blackwell has suggested) opposed to sewage treatment. They just don’t like the plan as it stands. 

Esquimalt resident Carole Witter, in a recent presentation to the CRD’s sewage treatment committee, spoke of the wrong-headed decisions that have been made on this file. She noted the CRD’s disregard of its own peer-reviewed reports indicating that McLoughlin Point was too small and that liquid and solid waste treatment should be located on the same site. Like many others she condemned the CRD for not embracing the waste-to-energy systems that are the new global standard. She termed “inexcusable” its funding of a $50,000 PR campaign but not a $20,000 cost-benefit analysis. She used the word “bullying” to describe the CRD’s approach to Esquimalt around zoning.

Later, she told me, “While communities are being pitted against each other arguing about where to put this monstrosity, people are losing sight of the fact that the type of plan is the problem. I am lobbying that the province pause this plan and go back…and investigate integrated resource management in a meaningful and transparent way.”

Lobbying the province is definitely one strategy for citizens, and local MLAs will likely be onside. Andrew Weaver has advocated for a delay till 2020 (from the current implementation deadline of 2016) so that “best-practice” examples from Europe can be studied. As he has written, “the proposed solution appears rushed and constrained to meet completely artificial timing deadlines put in place by politicians and government bureaucrats. The question is not if we need sewage treatment but rather if there is something that can be done better given a little more time.”

I agree with Witter and Weaver, and Focus has run articles over the years in support of treatment. The precautionary principle alone means we need to stop dumping sewage into the sea. But like so many others, I have no confidence in the CRD’s plan or its $783 million price tag. (Name one recent infrastructure project that hasn’t gone over budget.) 


GENERALLY, IF A REGIONAL DISTRICT wants to borrow a lot of money, it needs to hold a referendum. Unfortunately, in 2007 the BC Liberal (Campbell) government amended the rules around referenda in the Local Government Act to state: “Elector approval is not required if the liability is to be incurred for the purpose of…implementing…a waste management plan approved by the minister…and the inspector of municipalities approves the proposed liability.”

Allowing the CRD to avoid a referendum, even if well-intentioned, has made a mockery of democratic process. The CRD can go through the motions of consultation knowing full well it gets to make the final decision without approval from citizens. If, on the other hand, the Liberals had left citizens the automatic right to a referendum, the CRD would have had a real incentive to come up with a much better plan, one based on sincere and thorough citizen participation.

But it’s not too late to do things democratically. Perhaps with some prompting (a web petition, maybe), the CRD would agree to voluntarily put their treatment plan to a referendum. 

I would vote against their current plan. The clincher for me is that the CRD’s plan will not remove petrochemicals (largely from stormwater drains), pharmaceuticals, fire retardant and other contaminants, so there’s actually little environmental benefit from the proposed $783-million megaproject. As Andrew Weaver has said, “The solution doesn’t match the problem.” At least with an integrated resource management approach (such as the one the CRD rejected), costs for smaller, localized plants are incurred over time, as are revenues from waste recovery (producing heat, electricity and potable water)—and toxins don’t flow into the ocean.

I think the CRD owes all taxpayers a vote on its final proposal. 

If the referendum fails? Well, some resignations will be in order. And then we will need to design a plan—through genuine public consultation—that a majority of citizens will endorse.

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. She congratulates Rob Wipond on winning a Western Magazine Award for his November feature in Focus. Wishing all Focus readers a wonderful summer. See you in September!