An absence of evidence

By David Broadland, October 2015

There’s no scientific case for sewage treatment in Victoria, but the community faces a billion-dollar price tag anyway. Where do the candidates stand?

At a UVic election forum on the role the federal government should play in scientific research and support, NDP candidate for Victoria Murray Rankin told the mainly-student audience that “We’re not proud of what Stephen Harper has done to science. His war on science is everywhere to be seen and his victims are everywhere in our system.”

The Green Party’s Jo-Ann Roberts, running against Rankin, went further. “This is not just a war on science, it’s information and knowledge in this country that is under siege. Canadians are angry and embarrassed that ideology is replacing evidence when it comes to policy making.”

Appearing for the Liberals, Saanich Gulf Island candidate Tim Kane declared, “The war on science ends with a Liberal government.”

The absence of a Conservative candidate at the forum prompted Rankin to comment, “Conservatives haven’t got the courage to come to electors and justify what they’ve done to science policy.”

In spite of the candidates’ enthusiasm for applying scientific evidence to policy questions involving GMOs and climate change, the most high-profile case, locally, where science-based decision making has been absent didn’t come up: the Harper government’s insistence that Victoria’s current sewage treatment system is “ high-risk,” a claim unsupported by scientific evidence.

That’s a remarkable change compared to the 2012 federal by-election in which any all-candidates forum would have been peppered with questions about the lack of credible evidence to support spending a billion dollars to replace a treatment system that seems to be working just fine—according to former and current local public health authorities Dr Shaun Peck and Dr Richard Stanwick, as well as numerous local marine scientists.

In 2012’s election, UVic professor of law and Green Party candidate Donald Galloway offered voters a clear alternative to Rankin on treatment. He argued that scientists had determined Victoria’s unique method of disposing of its sewage was a “non-problem.” Why was the federal government forcing Victoria to solve a non-problem? Galloway told voters, “If the law requires us to pay $780 million to fix a non-problem, then the law is an ass.”

Rankin, the only candidate in that election who supported the CRD’s plan to adhere to the law, told the Globe & Mail’s Justine Hunter, “We’re the only [coastal] community north of San Diego that doesn’t have secondary sewage treatment. I think people are beginning to see that putting it off until the year 2040 is simply unacceptable. We have got to address the issue of dumping sewage into the ocean.”

Galloway’s unequivocal, pro-science position contributed to a near doubling of the Green Party’s vote in that by-election. At the same time, the NDP lost more than half its vote compared with 2011. As you can see in the maps below, most polls in the riding won by the NDP’s Denise Savoie in 2011 swung to Galloway in 2012. Even so, Rankin eeked out a 2.9 percent win over Galloway.

2011 and 2012 election maps 

Just after Rankin’s election, CRD directors considered, and rejected, a motion presented by Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen that 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.” The newly-elected Rankin provided no support for Jensen’s call for a comparative assessment.

In Victoria—a highly-educated community full of working and retired scientists, engineers and civil servants—it’s not difficult to see that evidence-based decision making is a core community value. A read of the numerous presentations by respected community members on this issue over the years provides proof of that. When that core value is ignored, however, there is distrust. At that UVic forum, Rankin told the audience, “Evidence-based decision making is crucial if we are to move forward as a country.” Surely that operating principle also applies to Victoria.

Since Rankin’s election, an additional $60 million has been spent on the CRD’s plan for a secondary treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. Most of that cash is now in danger of going down the drain. Had Rankin and other local politicians supported the strong call in the community for a comprehensive study of the environmental costs and benefits of land-based treatment, would that $60 million now be at risk? 

Suppose Rankin had supported such a study and that study had then found there would be a strong net environmental benefit provided by secondary treatment. Then Rankin—and everyone else who supported secondary treatment—would have possessed the evidence their opponents were demanding they have. With that evidence in hand, is it more likely—or less—that opposition to the McLoughlin plan would have continued to grow? 

On the other hand, if the evidence didn’t support the Harper government’s decision to require Victoria to build secondary treatment, why would Rankin—or anyone—insist that a billion dollars be wasted?

The only credible argument offered at the time against doing Jensen’s study was that it would delay the process and add to the cost. How ironic is it, then, that the project is now mired in an expensive study to assess the costs for an even higher level of treatment at a different location even though no scientific proof of the need for treatment has been established?

About a year after Rankin’s election, as  opposition to the McLoughlin plan grew, a group of 10 ocean scientists wrote to this magazine and expressed their concern about the treatment project. They stated: “The overriding impression we have of the CRD’s continuing plans for land-based secondary treatment, or suggestions by others for tertiary treatment, is that the allegedly scientific arguments put forward in support are very superficial. Protection of the marine environment is supposedly a primary goal, but nowhere can one find a detailed, quantitative, rational analysis of what the problems are with the present system and how the proposed schemes will fix them. The BC government’s order to the CRD in 2007 was largely based on the qualitative and inconclusive SETAC report. Similarly, the federal government’s ‘one size fits all’ regulations are clearly inappropriate in failing to take account of differences in receiving environments and hence different impacts and risks. The CRD’s willing compliance is disappointing.”

In their letter, the scientists went on to say, “Before spending a billion dollars, it would seem sensible to answer questions such as 1) What are the present or potential problems with wastewater and other discharges into the local marine environment? 2) How serious are these problems? 3) What are the major sources of the problems? 4) Will a proposed remedy eliminate or even reduce the problems without creating bigger impacts? 5) Are there better solutions than the ones proposed? 6) Is addressing the problems a high priority for marine environmental protection?”

The letter concluded,“Materials of concern such as heavy metals and pharmaceutical compounds are certainly present in the screened wastewater. However, rather than declaring them to be toxic or harmless, we really need a quantitative analysis of their concentrations and effects. Such an analysis has not been officially conducted. Many of us in the marine science community who have examined the issues, based on the excellent monitoring work of the CRD’s scientists together with consideration of local oceanographic conditions, have concluded that 1) in spite of some uncertainties, the impact of the present system is small, and 2) land-based secondary treatment in the Juan de Fuca Strait region is a low priority for marine environmental protection. Much greater benefits for the marine environment could be achieved for a fraction of the cost of the proposed scheme by focusing on more serious issues such as habitat loss, harmful invasive species, and making our local ecosystem more resilient to climate change and ocean acidification.”

The letter was signed by Jay Cullen, Chris Garrett, Jack Littlepage, Rob Macdonald, Tim Parsons, Tom Pedersen, Vera Pospelova, Rick Thomson, Diana Varela and Michael Whiticar. All are current, former, or adjunct professors of marine science—Tim Parsons at UBC and the rest at UVic.

With Rankin and Roberts proudly declaring their support for evidence-based policy making at the UVic forum, it seemed an appropriate invitation for Focus to send them the marine scientists’ letter and inquire as to whether their support for a science-based approach to decision making applied to sewage treatment. I put the same questions to Cheryl Thomas and John Rizutti, the Liberal and Conservative candidates in that race.

No response could be coaxed from Rizutti’s campaign. His campaign manager Bill Donaldson provided me with the email address and Ottawa-area telephone number of Stephanie Rea, whom Donaldson identified as Rizutti’s “communications expert.” Ms Rea did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls.

I asked the candidates if they would support a science-based determination of whether the current preliminary sewage treatment system is harming the environment, and whether any treatment proposal brought forward should be scientifically evaluated to determine whether it will provide a net environmental benefit.

To these questions the Green Party’s Roberts responded: “I am fully in support of conducting the necessary research to assess the potential harm of contaminants within our sewage outflow reaching our coastal waters. As a journalist covering this issue, I spoke with scientists who had conflicting views about the level of harm from heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, etc, all of which serves to point out that research needs to be done to reconcile these disparate views. And of course, the community and the environment will benefit from having the project evaluated on it’s long-term environmental impact.”

Cheryl Thomas said: “I believe in a science-based and evidence-based approach to public policy decisions, but I also respect the law. The Province of British Columbia has ordered the Capital Regional District, like other BC coastal communities have already done previously, to complete a secondary sewage treatment facility. I think it’s time for local decision-makers to do exactly that: make a decision about designing and siting this facility or facilities and get on with it.”

Murray Rankin did not respond directly to these questions. Instead, he wrote, “The existing sewage system does not meet provincial regulations and federal Fisheries Act requirements. As well, regional growth in the years ahead will only increase the amount of sewage being discharged into the ocean.”

The only candidate who agreed with pursuing a science-based evaluation of the harms of the current system and the benefits of a proposed treatment system was Roberts. I asked her if she would work to get the federal government to provide the CRD with time and funding to conduct such science-based evaluations.

“Absolutely,” Roberts wrote. “As an MP, my job will be to protect the current funding, secure any additional funding in order to ensure the best option is chosen and that hasty decisions are not made for fear of deadlines.”

In the case of climate change, it’s easy to understand why, as a country, moving forward has required applying rigorous scientific inquiry to reveal the precise mechanisms by which burning hydrocarbons in the atmosphere will damage our planet’s life-support systems. How else would we know what to do in response?

Why, then, don’t we have the same expectation of rigorous scientific inquiry when it comes to sewage treatment? How can we know how to fix something if we haven’t bothered to determine whether it’s broken? How do we know the fix won’t do more damage than good? The candidates, hopefully, will provide more of their views on this issue before October 19.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.