McLoughlinism in retreat?

By David Broadland, March 2015

In trying to save the McLoughlin Point plan, CRD staff instead shoot it in the foot.

Eleven months after Environment Minister Mary Polak refused to support the CRD’s effort to force a central sewage treatment plant on Esquimalt, CRD and Seaterra Commission staff continue to spend tax dollars trying to make it happen anyway.

That was evident at a February 18 meeting of the CRD sewage committee. CRD staff delivered a report on the status of the $255 million Hartland resource recovery centre, which was well into the procurement stage when Seaterra was officially paused last July. 

The report was met with a barrage of criticism by several directors attending the meeting. That report had been requested a week before when sewage committee directors were told “an agreement to enter into an agreement” with PPP Canada would expire on March 31, and that would jeopardize $83.4 million in funding for the Hartland facility. CRD staff along with committee Chair and Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen have been pressuring the committee to make a decision on extending the agreement with PPP Canada. (PPP Canada is a federal Crown corporation that supports “innovative public infrastructure projects, using the public-private partnership (P3) model.”)

So at that earlier meeting, directors instructed CRD staff to report back on alternatives to anaerobic digesters, including the potential for using a waste-to-energy facility and gasification.

What prompted the outpouring of criticism on February 18?

The digesters and resource recovery centre are closely linked to a central treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. Sludge that’s produced by sewage treatment is normally processed in digesters at a treatment plant. McLoughlin Point’s small size, though, didn’t allow room for anaerobic digesters. So McLoughlin needs the Hartland digesters.

If the CRD could find a larger site than McLoughlin for a central treatment plant, the digesters could be located there. The PPP Canada funding, though, will have expired by the time the necessary approvals and permits had been granted for a new site. So the concern amongst CRD staff for keeping PPP Canada funding viable is really all about keeping the McLoughlin Point plan alive. That concern is shared by  Jensen and other pro-McLoughlin directors.

The report that was delivered on February 18, though, had more the effect of shooting McLoughlin in the foot. The main CRD spokesperson for the report at the meeting was Albert Sweetnam, the Seaterra program project director. He was hired at $290,000 a year to build a treatment plant at McLoughlin and the resource recovery centre at Hartland and isn’t seen as an objective adviser. The information he was there to explain was met with open skepticism by many of the directors. The report pointed out all the reasons why the sewage committee should stay the course on its previous decision to use anaerobic digestion to process sewage sludge at Hartland. Those reasons amounted to: “we were right the first time,” “that won’t work,” and “you can’t do that yet.”

CRD staff recommended directors “receive this report for information.” That’s not what happened.

Before November’s election, that recommendation would have almost certainly passed with only Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins,  Saanich Councillor Vic Derman and Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton objecting. But the committee table now has several new faces around it and the balance has shifted away from McLoughlin Point.

Director Ben Isitt, usually supportive of going back to McLoughlin, wasn’t happy with the staff’s McLoughlin-or-nothing approach: “The way the report has been worded,” Isitt said, “it does feel a bit unbalanced. The numbers of cons in relation to gasification versus the number of pros in relation to anaerobic digestion does feel a little bit like its guiding us toward a particular outcome.”

Derman found himself, perhaps unexpectedly, on the same side of the argument as Isitt: “Some of the information in the report is wildly inaccurate,” he told his fellow directors. Desjardins was similarly skeptical. “Everything I see in this report is based on an old plan. We have to come up with something new. I have a concern that we actually went back to Stantec for information on this. Stantec have been with us all along. To ask them to provide something different than before would be like asking them to say ‘We were wrong’.”

“I’m also not going to accept this report,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. “On the one hand we’re saying ‘Let’s look for innovation, let’s do a market sounding, let’s honour the Eastside and Westside processes, let’s engage residents and see what they want for the future in terms of environmental and economic benefits. On the other hand, we’re getting a report that’s saying: ‘We must do anaerobic digestion at Hartland or else the world’s going to end’.”

Victoria Councillor Geoff Young, who, like Isitt, has been a steadfast supporter of the McLoughlin plan, observed the objections: “There is obviously distrust about the information that our staff is providing us. That’s a problem because the market sounding is the first step in an evaluation process. I’ve heard people talk as if, when we get this market sounding, we’re going to be able to listen to the various proposals, maybe put little charts of them up on boards, and that our public are going to be able to evaluate them. That’s not the case. Every single proposal we receive is going to sound very good, it’s going to have environmental and financial benefits that you wouldn’t believe. The only way that useful decisions can be made is with input from neutral staff.”

View Royal Mayor David Screech summed up the minority position (to receive the staff report) when he said, “I despair of our chance of making really crucial decisions when we spend 25 minutes discussing whether we’re going to receive a document.”

But Isitt countered that: “I think this is a worthwhile discussion because I think there’s value in sending a signal to staff and the public that we want to move forward aggressively to develop a new option which may be evaluated alongside the existing option.”

The motion to receive the staff report was soundly defeated.

Jensen seemed taken aback, equating the majority’s rejection of the information with not being open to hear information. To this observer, though, it seemed pretty darn clear the majority felt they’d heard the same information one too many times.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.