Sewage plan eludes CRD

By David Broadland, October 2014

A de facto referendum on the issue is gaining momentum.

Where did the sewage treatment issue go? With the apparent collapse of the CRD’s $782-million centralized sewage treatment plan, the issue seems to have disappeared. Problem solved? Hardly.

Faced with being unable to use Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point, the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee (sewage committee) instructed CRD staff last summer to prepare terms of reference for an “options study.” The proposed terms of reference for that study were delivered by CRD staff at a meeting of the CRD’s sewage committee on September 10.

Oddly, the staff report argued to keep a central treatment plant at McLoughlin as one of the options to be considered by the study. Tellingly, the report’s recommendations were developed without any non-CRD input, and that brought a rain of criticism down on the CRD at the September 10 meeting.

John Farquharson, a director of the Sewage Treatment Action Group (STAG), told CRD directors, “This study is not designed for success; it is designed for failure, along with a waste of $400,000 of taxpayers’ money and the loss of another 10 months.”

Norma Brown worried that the CRD was repeating past mistakes and complained, “To my disappointment and anger…I do not see that vital community focus. Instead I see a terms of reference and rationale to, again, maintain the status quo for this project.” 

Irwin Henderson told the committee he had served as chief of staff for two Royal Commissions, managed two studies of cost overruns on utility and engineering projects, and was part of the team that built the BC Energy Project and the environmental assessment processes.

Henderson described sewage treatment projects as “high risk, high complexity, and high exposure.” As well, he said, the CRD’s plan is “subject to multiple vetoes,” a circumstance, he suggested, the CRD had overlooked. “Projects with multiple vetoes…must be treated differently, and the [CRD] is not in 100 percent control. The fact that this was not recognized has led to mistakes. Unilateral tactics are severely counterproductive in multiple-veto projects.” 

The CRD needed to approach the options study with that in mind, Henderson argued. “This has got to be transparent, independent and a very public process. It needs to be all-inclusive.”

A formal letter to the CRD from the mayors of Langford, Colwood, View Royal and Esquimalt, and Chief Ron Sam of Songhees Nation, also argued that the terms of reference for the study were inadequate. They noted the report dismissed new possible sites, ignored the possibility of net revenues from a distributed plan, and failed to make the proposed independent manager of the options study independent enough. The letter writers urged more and earlier involvement of municipalities, First Nations, and the public in identifying issues and solutions.

CRD directors referred the terms of reference for the options study back to staff with directions to address the issues raised in the letter, as well as other amendments. A number of directors urged speed, but the earliest date a revised terms of reference for the options study could likely be delivered would be at the next sewage committee meeting on October 8.

Since then, local politicians have been quiet.

It appears, though, that voters may be getting a de facto referendum on the issue in the upcoming civic elections.

In Saanich, Richard Atwell is running against Mayor Frank Leonard. Leonard has been a vociferous supporter of a central treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. Atwell, a computer software engineer, is a director of STAG and a well-known advocate for a distributed enhanced tertiary system, as well as a severe critic of the CRD’s flawed process and lack of transparency.

In Oak Bay, incumbent Mayor Nils Jensen is now supporting sewage treatment—but only if its done at a central plant at McLoughlin Point. Oak Bay Councillor Cairine Green has decided to challenge Jensen—and she pointedly differs with him on attempting to force a central treatment plant on Esquimalt.

In the City of Victoria, Councillor Lisa Helps is challenging Mayor Dean Fortin. Fortin has been a staunch supporter of the McLoughlin Point plan; Helps is calling for a “better plan.”

So far, there’s no pro-McLoughlin candidate running in Esquimalt’s mayoralty race. Mayor Desjardins is being challenged by former Victoria Deputy Police Chief John Ducker, but Ducker’s position on McLoughlin Point agrees with that of Desjardins.

Some non-incumbent candidates for council positions are also critics of how the current CRD directors have handled the sewage treatment planning process thus far.

So whether candidates like it or not, at least some voters will be using the opportunity to cast a vote for or against the CRD’s McLoughlin-based treatment plan.

Unlike other major projects requiring the borrowing of funds, the BC Liberals 2003 Environmental Management Act exempts sewage treatment projects from the usual requirements to hold a referendum. Municipalities and regional districts are, however, required to follow guidelines calling for “comprehensive review and consultation with the public.” This consultation is required on a number of issues, including the financial impact on taxpayers. The intention of the regulations seems clear: since there is no avenue to appeal ministerial approval of a liquid waste management plan, consultation must occur before ministerial approval is sought.

The CRD did no public consultation on a treatment plan that had a single, central treatment plant before seeking ministerial approval. It would appear that consultation could now take place on November 15.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.