Letters to the editor

Focus readers, January 2016

Scientists to CRD: petition the feds

In their call for an “evidence-based approach to developing sewage treatment for Victoria,” the marine scientists (Jay Cullen et al) make some claims that require further discussion.

The authors state, “In light of the experience with PCBs, governments were unwise to allow the use of various polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs) as flame retardants in furnishings and other products. Their use is also now being banned, but concentrations may continue to increase for awhile. Wastewater is presently an important route to the ocean but sewage treatment is only partly effective.”

Advanced sewage treatment, where total levels of treatment achieve secondary level—typically defined as a biological process to remove dissolved and suspended materials—or higher, is best characterized as more than “only partly effective” for these compounds. Indeed, the scientific literature shows removal rates on the order of 95 percent or higher for PBDEs.

In addition, when it comes to microbeads and microfibers, Cullen et al state, “Many of these very small pieces of non-biodegradable material would pass straight through the secondary sewage treatment mandated by the federal government.”

We know from the principles of sewage treatment and the partitioning behaviour of these types of substances that high levels of removal for microbeads and microfibers should take place during advanced wastewater treatment, both in the initial primary treatment settling processes and in the biological reactors—driven by sorption onto the biological floc and subsequent settling in a clarifier and/or removal via filtration. A detailed study from Sweden corroborates this, where the scientists reported that 99.9 percent of microplastics were removed via an advanced treatment plant where the wastewater is treated mechanically, chemically, and biologically. Another investigation in Russia by researchers from Finland demonstrated a removal rate of 96 percent for textile fibers and microplastics for a sewage treatment plant with enhanced nutrients removal.

The evidence is on the side of the sewage treatment proponents.

Sierra Rayne


There are multiple statements in the December article by 10 scientists that organic matter we pump into the ocean is rapidly incorporated into the ecosystem and subsequently degraded. That may be true for ordinary human waste; however, almost nothing is known about the fate of the many thousands of synthetic organic chemicals and drugs we flush down the drain every day. The level of concern about harmful substances can be significantly diminished with tertiary treatment compared to secondary or no treatment.

The removal of contaminants does not have to rely on governments eventually banning them from use, which could take another 20 years or more. Instead, using tertiary treatment, the insoluble contaminants can be filtered out with 0.04 micron membrane filters. That would remove the vast majority of solids including chemicals, superbugs (multi-drug resistant bacteria that breed in all sewage treatment plants), viruses, micro plastics and micro fibres from the water before it is reused or discarded. In contrast to that, secondary treatment relies on less efficient gravity clarifiers with only partial removal of these solids, and therefore they are still present in the effluent when it is discarded into the ocean.

Concern about heavy metals would also be eliminated with tertiary treatment followed by gasification of the sludge, since the heavy metals would end up in the very small amount of slag produced in this process.

A tertiary treatment process efficiently separates the insoluble from soluble compounds, and the soluble ones can be largely destroyed in advanced oxidation of the effluent with ultraviolet light plus hydrogen peroxide treatment. Such a clean effluent can be used to water lawns and gardens, to replenish aquifers or be safely discharged into lakes, streams or the ocean. This treatment would prove especially effective for those thousands of chemicals that cannot be degraded in the marine environment, especially fat soluble ones that could bio-accumulate in marine mammals. Dilution is not the solution for that class of pollutants.

The article also talks about the need for investigation that would clarify the nature of the potential problems we face. In order to simplify the test for removal of thousands of chemicals in the sewage by different treatment processes, I would suggest a study with a representative number of test chemicals (perhaps 100 compounds representing many different classes of pollutants), spiking the sewage influent with them and testing the effluent for efficacy of their removal in tertiary plus advanced oxidation treatment, secondary treatment, and the current system. Such a study would give us the first meaningful results to determine which level of sewage treatment we need here.

Thomas Maler, PhD


The Chinese welding ruse

I was intrigued by David Broadland’s description of the “wacky” and “whimsical” bridge design by London architect Sebastien Ricard.  Mr. Ricard’s website lists a number of his projects around the world, including “a major opening bridge in Victoria Island, Canada”.    If he can’t even get the name “Vancouver Island” right, we should indeed be worried.

Blaise Salmon 


City of Victoria councillors are tasked with spending the public’s money, but are not bridge or design experts and must rely on City engineering and legal staff to be as informed as possible before they reach a decision.

Not permitting council to know the content and reasoning behind PCL’s competitors’ bids, especially their reservations about the design, seems hugely improper—and could be one main reason this project is such a mess.

Karen Muntean


Sustainable development oxymoronic

Maleea Acker’s report on biologist Jacques Sirois’ biosphere dreams in December 2015 was dreamy in itself, a pleasure to read. The UNESCO Biosphere notion is exciting on the face of it but to expect “sustainable development” to stay in the “buffer zone” and stop suddenly at the “transition zone” is risible. Development will move inexorably to the supposedly protected “core protected zone.”

It’s time to end the use of the term “sustainable development.” It’s genius greenwashing, but the emptiness and oxymoronic quality of it is apparent. (And doesn’t “development” itself sound benign?)

Whether amassing material goods and buying a mansion that could house 30 people, or living in a shack and expanding your portion of barely arable dirt to feed a growing family by killing wildlife that compete with humans and by burning down forests, none of what we are doing as a species is “sustainable” as long as we hold to the delusion that we can increase the human population and expand our footprint endlessly in a finite space.

Some estimates put the entire population of the world at 5 million in 8000 BC. It took almost all of human history for the world human population to reach one billion around 1800. As a result of the Industrial Revolution it took only 130 years to double to 2 billion (1930). In less than 30 years population reached the third billion (1959), another 15 years it reached the fourth billion (1974), and by 1987 had reached 5 billion. In 1970, there were about half as many people in the world as there are now. The United Nations projects the human population of the world to 8 billion people in the spring of 2024.

I’m with Gavin Hanke, vertebrates curator at the Royal BC Museum, who understandably got minor mention in the article, and who thinks the only viable way to preserve any wildness is to “put a wall around this region and humans have to stay inside.”

It’s an unpopular topic. I don’t have answers, as any I can think of are unpalatable. But living in denial is the real dream, and it has nightmare potential.

Diane McNally


100 days of destruction

The problem with bandwagons is that everyone wants on before anyone knows where they are headed, or which way they are going.

Electric cars (and constantly upgraded electrical devices) cannot—must not—be the solution if the destruction of places like the Peace River Valley is the cost. All technology comes at a great price and the illusions people buy into today, will be the disasters we will all be dealing with tomorrow. The only alternative to complete environmental collapse is the curbing of human appetite for ever-new bling. Perhaps horse-drawn bandwagons are the future.

Jana Kalina



For anyone slightly intimidated and sometimes made to feel a little uneasy by Gene Miller’s cleverness, mocking wit, and feigned world-weariness, I highly recommend reading his column in the December Focus. 

I notice that people are often anxious to “square up” to a perceived threat in what they suppose is a facile and breezy cynicism on his part.

But wait: Gene constantly re-invents himself! And the first requirement for success in this endeavour is a kind of bravery, a willingness to be seen as naive, starry-eyed, a Pollyanna. People always scoff at new ideas whose time has finally come, and Gene is not afraid to risk that. Watch and learn, young people! His wonderfully insightful latest article is a cast-iron demonstration of the true meaning of the term “vision.” 

Fairy tales can come true! It can happen to you! But only if you, like Gene, are still among the very young at heart.

Richard Carlson


Gene Miller’s prophetic article will generate discussion about what capitalism and socialism actually mean. Is “postcapitalist” Paul Mason really just a closet socialist? What are these two words’ simple definitions?

Michael Moore once told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, after Barack Obama was accused of being a socialist, “maybe that’s a good thing. It gets people looking it up in Wikipedia or something, start to think about—they start reading about it. ‘Hey, you know what? That’s not a bad idea there, taking care of everybody, making sure everybody is cared for.’”

Political scientist Dr Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds is a fine treatment of real existing socialism and its distinction from capitalism. 

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are democratic socialists. Victoria City councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday are members of the “democratic eco-socialist” Social Environmental Alliance (SEA). SEA’s  Constitution presents an accessible contrast to Paul Mason’s postcapitalist model. SEA calls for “System Change Not Climate Change” and putting “People and Planet Before Profit.”

Larry Wartels


Premier Clark: Please decarbonize

Maybe you read Focus Magazine. If not I hope you will start. In fact, you could start with the December editorial: “Embracing decarbonization.”

Ms Clark, British Columbians are not so foolish as to believe in your “jobs, jobs, jobs” strategy around the LNG boondoggle. Nor in your green record, a record based on Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax which you froze in 2012. At the moment, BC is becoming Canada’s fossil province due to your Site C push, and your catering to carbon-producing industries.

Site C (see Briony Penn’s article “100 Days of Destruction” in Focus) will destroy a vast swath of important farmland, farmland that becomes ever more crucial as the climate warms. It will directly and indirectly up our carbon emissions through the trees cut and then through the LNG the energy will be used for.

It will cost the province much more than the projected $9 million, money that could be used to get more green energy projects in place.

And, of course, it tramples the rights of Treaty 8 First Nations.

You have a son. It is his generation that will really begin to feel the effects of climate change. What will your answer be when he says, “Mom, why didn’t you do something? You could have.”

You have it in your power to move BC towards a better, greener future. Think of your grandchildren and what they’ll be up against. Then call a moratorium on Site C before it’s too late.

Dorothy Field


Shelve Plecas report

Two reports were released this week that touch on the lives of Aboriginal children and youth. One was written by Justice Murray Sinclair and will transform Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. The other, by a government insider, flippantly dismisses the value of reports written by Justices, and similarly dismisses Aboriginal peoples, taking as its incomprehensible premise that kids will die, and that this is just the collateral damage we should expect in a system that the BC Government has starved and ignored.

[T]he kids who die in care every year, like the 90 deaths already reported this year, have critical commonalities: They are mostly Aboriginal and they have bounced through child welfare without anyone hearing their stories or finding the time to listen or tell these in a way that builds change. They are tough stories, like Paige Gauthier and Alex Gervais, which sent shockwaves across the Province as people digested the instability and professional indifference our children experience while in government care.

“Plecas Review, Part One: Decision Time,” commissioned by the Christy Clark government and written by former provincial bureaucrat Bob Plecas is the polar opposite of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. In the way it was produced and in its content, it harkens to another era when our children were forcibly removed from their homes and put into the residential school system, and where our land was taken and our culture was outlawed, with our well-being a distant thought. Decision Time proposes sweeping changes to child welfare in this province, including ending vital independent oversight. These recommendations were developed with no engagement of First Nations, despite the fact that fully 60 percent of the children in care in British Columbia are Aboriginal.

Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, we are all collectively saying “never again” regarding harm and risk to children, and the federal government under Prime Minister Trudeau is hearing us and has committed to action. In contrast, at the same time, the Christy Clark government appears through Decision Time to instead say “it will always be.”

Having a government insider write a report that tries to end oversight and hinder the growth of a desperately needed culture of accountability is absolutely unacceptable… Reports such as Decision Time speak to a bygone era that the federal government and growing numbers of Canadians and British Columbians reject. The Christy Clark government needs to show that it stands up for Aboriginal children and youth and shelve Decision Time. Further, we call on the Premier to implement all of the Representative for Children and Youth’s outstanding recommendations, including her recommendations for increased funding and supports to the child welfare system.

Union of BC Indian Chiefs


UVic faculty demand divestment

Open letter to UVic President Cassels and Chair of Board of Governors Dr Mohr:

We are writing to pursue our initial call for the University of Victoria’s endowment to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The Board of the University of Victoria Foundation, which governs the endowment, has communicated its opposition to divestment, citing financial concerns. And yet the financial case for fossil fuel divestment has only grown stronger since our last communication. Just this past week two different reports were released indicating that large funds like the Canadian Pension Plan have lost billions of dollars by not divesting from fossil fuel companies in 2012, when the divestment campaign was launched. Furthermore, these calculations do not factor in the stranded asset theory that underpins the financial case for divestment. Given that only one-third of known reserves can be safely burned to avoid catastrophic climate change, and those reserves are already factored into company stock prices, it follows that they will become “stranded” when needed climate legislation comes into force…

Moreover, divestment is not only a financial concern. The fundamental claim animating this global movement has always been a moral one: “If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” UVic’s fossil fuel investments (which have actually increased over the past 1.5 years) are a moral and reputational concern along with a financial one. We join UVic students in requesting that the Office of the President and Board of Governors weigh the arguments and make a decision regarding divestment. With our moral, reputational, and financial standing on the line, divestment needs careful consideration from more than a small endowment board with no student or faculty representation.

The moral and financial arguments for divestment are rooted in extensive ecological research evidencing the dangers of continuing to extract fossil fuels and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, including recent studies that link climate change with extreme weather events. A recent paper in Nature notes that 85 percent of viable reserves in the Alberta tar sands need to stay in the ground in order to avoid surpassing 2 degree warming. And yet UVic continues investing in tar sands companies like Suncor who note in a recent annual report, “Absolute GHG emissions of our company will continue to rise as we pursue a prudent and planned growth strategy.” There is growing evidence that the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel companies have had a disproportionate effect on public discourse: Historically fossil fuel companies have funded the disinformation campaign on climate change or in the widely-circulated case of Exxon, purposely withheld their own scientific evidence of climate change.

Seeking profits from investments in fossil fuel companies is dangerous ecologically, morally, and increasingly on financial grounds. So why is UVic continuing down this path when sustainability, including sustainable investment, is prioritized in our strategic plan?

We join UVic students in respectfully requesting a freeze in new investments now, and a phasing out of current investments over the next three years.

Signed by 200 UVic faculty