Option 10: Our best bet to avoid sewercide?
By David Broadland, February 2016
Fisheries Act requirements for sewage treatment in Victoria could be met for less than $200 million.
ARE POLITICIANS BETTER AT solving problems or creating them? After following Victoria’s billion-dollar sewage treatment issue for several years, I’ve concluded they’re awfully good at creating them. The failure to find a reasonable solution to the treatment issue seems to stem from local politicians not being able to decide whether the problem they’re trying to solve is an environmental question or a question about how to meet funding deadlines.
In this conflicted state, the politicians have allowed themselves to be led to a solution designed by senior government technocrats far more intent on creating giant construction projects than protecting orca. The ease with which local political leaders have allowed themselves to be controlled by the impulses and promises of upper levels of government has been astonishing. The promise of federal and provincial funding—and the fear of losing any of that loot—grabbed them firmly by the throat several years ago, choking off any further supply of oxygen to their brains.
At the same time, local political leaders have failed to listen to, or act on, concerns from their constituents about the obviously-flawed underpinnings of the federal and provincial regulations that led to this billion-dollar moment. Just before last fall’s federal election, I asked Victoria MP Murray Rankin if he would support a science-based determination of whether Victoria’s existing 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. Rather than addressing those questions squarely, Rankin would only say “The existing sewage system does not meet provincial regulations and federal Fisheries Act requirements.”
Such unquestioning acceptance of Fisheries Act “requirements” has been the modus operandi of almost all the politicians involved over the last five years in this costly ($76 million and counting) exercise in futility. If Rankin is so certain that those requirements should be adhered to, why doesn’t he tell us why?
In the absence of informed political leadership, scientists have had to step forward. Some time ago, 10 prominent local marine scientists penned a letter to Focus in which they stated: “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.”
Recently, those same ten scientists again wrote to Focus stating: “At the very least, we urge the CRD to petition the federal government to reclassify Victoria’s discharges as medium or low risk, with treatment deadlines of 2030 and 2040 respectively, rather than (as is now the case) high risk requiring treatment by 2020. That way we would have time for the rational, quantitative evaluation of potential problems and their solution if necessary, rather than rushing into expensive treatment systems that would largely address non-problems.”
Underlining those scientists’ concerns about the CRD’s unquestioning acceptance of a high risk classification is a recently-released study by Victoria-based DFO scientists who concluded that upgrading all Victoria and Vancouver sewage treatment facilities to a secondary level of treatment would have a “negligible effect” on environmental conditions in the Salish Sea.
While there’s little support from the scientific community for the CRD to proceed in the direction it’s moving, there’s even less support from the broader community for the mounting cost of meeting provincial and federal requirements.
All of the current options on the table—including the original McLoughlin Point proposal—would likely exceed a billion dollars in capital costs. Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen’s recent push in the Times Colonist to resuscitate a project the municipality of Esquimalt has already rejected is founded entirely on Jensen’s contention that the 2010 estimate of $783 million for that project still applies. But the latest estimate from the CRD on McLoughlin is $879 million. That new figure accounts for 11.5 percent inflation on engineering and construction costs since 2010. Even that $879 million is suspect, though. In 2010, the accountancy firm Ernst & Young independently estimated the McLoughlin project would cost $830 million. It provided that estimate for the business case study for the project that was required by the Province. If an 11.5 percent inflation premium is applied to Ernst & Young’s estimate, the cost of McLoughlin Point rises to $925 million.
The lowest-cost option developed as an alternative to McLoughlin—a secondary treatment plant at Rock Bay—has been estimated at $1.03 billion. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps exhibited a sketchy grasp of the history of the sewage treatment issue when she suggested “conceptual” estimates for Rock Bay-based options would be followed by lower cost estimates. The history of the project shows that estimates were manipulated downward to match promised funding. And there is no record of a local municipal government completing a major infrastructure project at a lower cost than originally estimated at a concept level. Helps herself has been intimately involved with the notorious Johnson Street Bridge project as it ballooned from $77 million in 2011 to close to $140 million today. With that project still ka-chinging in her ears it’s incomprehensible that Helps would seriously think the cost for a Rock Bay plant would go down.
Cost is a major determinant of the level of public support for the treatment project. Ipsos, on behalf of the CRD, recently asked Victorians: “At what price would you consider the solution to be so expensive that you would not be willing to support it?” If the project cost households more than $1 per day, 67 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t support it. Yet CRD calculations for annual household costs for the least expensive Rock Bay option, which assumed promised federal and provincial grants would materialize, showed that households in every participating municipality except Colwood would pay more than a $1 per day. Once cost overruns are figured in, most households would pay well over $2 per day. That will be onerous for many in our community. If local scientists with expert knowledge of the environmental conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca say this expenditure is unnecessary, why aren’t local political leaders listening?
Many pro-treatment advocates have told me their support is based on the precautionary principle: if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy isn’t harmful, the burden of proof that it’s not harmful falls on those taking the action.
There is actually strong scientific consensus that the current method of marine treatment is not causing harm. Regardless, shouldn’t the precautionary principle also be applied to the action being demanded by the Province and Environment Canada? Shouldn’t the proponents of treatment bear the burden of proof that what they propose will not cause harm? There are reasons to be concerned that what the CRD hopes to build will cause harm to both the environment and humans. Let me give you one example.
In last month’s edition I wrote about a peer-reviewed study prepared by local DFO research scientists Sophie Johannessen, Rob Macdonald, and others. Their study looked at the impact secondary sewage treatment would have on environmental conditions in our waters. The study’s authors stated: “Secondary treatment…will reduce fluxes of some contaminants, but will have negligible effect on regional budgets for organic carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, metals and PCBs. Removal of PBDEs from wastewater will affect regional budgets, depending on how the sludge is sequestered.”
Johannessen’s and Macdonald’s study indicated, then, that the only substantial difference that secondary treatment could make would be removal of some contaminants, especially polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are used as flame retardants in a variety of household objects.
As I mentioned last month, PBDEs are persistent organic pollutants and are thought to be endocrine disruptors. They may produce adverse reproductive, developmental, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife. There is broad concern that PBDEs, like PCBs, bioaccumulate. (See the 2014 US EPA fact sheet for more information on the language scientists are using regarding these effects.) Environment Canada and Health Canada have stated it’s their objective to reduce the concentration of PBDEs in the Canadian environment “to the lowest level possible.” Consequently, the manufacture and use of PBDEs have recently been banned in Canada.
According to scientists, the three main pathways for PBDEs to enter marine waters are atmospheric deposition (44-56 percent), sewage (25-38 percent), and surface runoff (18 percent). Here’s how PBDEs get into sewage effluent: First they are released from something in our home that contains them—like a foam mattress—and attach to particles of dust, some of which settle on our clothing. Finally, when we wash our clothes the PBDEs head to the Strait of Juan de Fuca through the sewers. Secondary sewage treatment could remove as much as 80 percent of the estimated 8.3 kilograms of PBDEs currently discharged through Victoria’s outfalls each year. Diverting 80 percent of that—just under seven kilograms a year—was the only potential environmental benefit Johannessen et al identified that could be obtained from spending a billion dollars on secondary sewage treatment.
But even obtaining that small benefit would depend on what happens to the end product of sewage treatment—the biosolids. As I wrote last month, none of the current avenues available to the CRD for disposing of these contaminated biosolids would safely isolate or destroy the PBDEs.
Anaerobic biodigestion doesn’t affect PBDEs. Landfilling the biosolids would result in ever-increasing levels of PBDEs in the landfill’s leachate. A study by BC scientists of the level of PBDEs in leachate from municipal landfills across Canada shows some landfills with highly elevated levels of PBDEs in their leachate. We can only guess where those PBDEs are coming from.
Likewise, spreading biosolids on farm or forest land would allow the PBDEs to accumulate in animals—some destined for human consumption—or be washed into aquatic environments.
Incineration of the biosolids would put the PBDEs into our airshed, with some being converted to extremely toxic furans and dioxins.
How about gasification? A 2012 publication from the UN that provided “Guidance on best available techniques and best environmental practices for the recycling and disposal of articles containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers” noted that gasification would result in the production of dioxins and furans. It concluded, “Currently pyrolysis and gasification cannot be considered best available techniques or best environmental practices for treatment of POP-PBDE-containing materials until long-term full-scale applications have shown to result in products and product flows that can be considered environmentally sound.”
Do Victorians want to be guinea pigs in that experiment?
If proponents of treatment want to apply the precautionary principle to the current marine-based treatment system (in spite of reassurances from scientists), then why haven’t they supported repeated calls for proof that the proposed treatment plan won’t cause harm? Part of the answer to that is that the CRD doesn’t know what it would do with those biosolids. Conveniently for the CRD, that lack of a plan makes it difficult to criticize.
We are in a crazy-making situation: The community’s political leaders are being stampeded to meet funding deadlines for a billion-dollar construction project—a project originally justified by the technocrats entirely on environmental grounds—without having any firm plan for how to isolate or destroy the toxins a treatment plant will produce.
One way out of this insanity would be to find a course of action that would cost far less than $1 billion, doesn’t depend on funding from senior governments, allows Victoria to meet federal regulations and doesn’t eliminate the possibility of pursuing some other course of action in the future. Believe it or not, there is such an option.
Let’s call it “Option 10.” Just like Jensen’s and Helps’ options, Option 10 will require new outfalls. But in every other respect it’s completely different. Unlike the mayors’ options, Option 10 wouldn’t involve any land that isn’t already used for sewage treatment. It wouldn’t require the excavation of a single kilometre of roads for new pipes. There would be no polluting of our airshed or permanent storage of vast quantities of chemical-laden human crap at the Hartland Landfill. Instead of a billion dollars, Option 10 would cost in the neighbourhood of $180 million and would take less than two years to construct.
Here’s the nuts and bolts of Option 10 (see below): Small, circular underground tanks (swirlpools) would be located at both Macaulay Point and Clover Point immediately downstream from the existing treatment facilities. At both locations three large axial-flow saltwater pumps would draw water from the ocean and swirl that a couple of times around the tank, mixing it thoroughly with a smaller stream of effluent coming from the existing screening and settling facilities. The mixture of seawater and effluent would then drain by gravity through a kilometre-long outfall.
The ratio of seawater to effluent would be carefully controlled by continuous sampling of the concentration of suspended solids in the super effluent being discharged through the outfall. Each of the new outfalls would need to have significantly greater hydraulic capacity than the existing outfalls; that’s because the effluent discharged by the outfall’s diffuser (think of a giant underwater lawn sprinkler) would contain up to 90 percent seawater. With such a system, the Fisheries Act regulations that are currently holding Victorians hostage for a billion-dollar ransom could be met.
The Fisheries Act regulations don’t prohibit the discharge of effluent from sanitary sewers, they simply specify the allowable levels of four different characteristics common to all sewage. Victoria’s sewage effluent exceeds the allowed value for only two of those characteristics: suspended solids and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand. All the community needs to do is dilute its effluent to meet the Fisheries Act regulations.
During drier weather, the effluent that flows out of the outfalls at both Macaulay Point and Clover Point exceeds the regulatory limit on suspended solids by a factor of about 10. By adding 9 litres of seawater to every litre of effluent, the concentration of suspended solids in the resulting super effluent would meet the technical requirements of the Fisheries Act regulations. By meeting the regulations’ limit on suspended solids, the regulatory limit on biochemical oxygen demand would also be met.
This strategy would also meet the intention of the Fisheries Act regulations, which is to ensure that water is not “deleterious to fish or fish habitat or to the use by man of fish that frequent that water.” In the case of sewage effluent, the “water” the Act measures and regulates is the water inside the sewage outfall.
The Fisheries Act regulations are intended, in effect, to protect a hypothetical fish that is swimming inside an outfall. Although there is no evidence that fish are swimming inside either of Victoria’s outfalls, according to the regulations that doesn’t matter. Perversely, the regulations have nothing to say at all about the condition of the water immediately outside the outfall, where actual fish can be found.
As a tool for environmental protection, then, the Act’s wastewater systems effluent regulations are exceedingly blunt. Those 10 local marine scientists were being too polite when they characterized the regulations as “one size fits all.” They’re unreasonable.
When senior governments impose unreasonable regulations that have no useful outcome other than to create vast profits for engineering and construction companies, what are communities to do? Should they huff and puff and fall all over themselves in order to meet an unreasonable regulation by some artificially-important date?
In such a situation, protecting the economic integrity of a community by simply diluting the effluent inside the outfalls so that it conforms with the Act and goes no further seems a reasonable response. The Act doesn’t prescribe how to conform to the regulations—that’s left entirely to the affected community.
Let me whet your appetite for this idea with a cash bonus that would completely pay for Option 10. Both Mayor Jensen’s and Mayor Helps’ options would cost in excess of $1 billion. But with both there would be significant additional cost just down the road. Both options would require the City of Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay to spend hundreds of millions on reducing the amount of rainfall and groundwater that is leaking into sewers. Capital and operating costs for sewage treatment increase with the volume treated, so eliminating rainwater saves money. The CRD has estimated that would cost $420 million for the municipalities participating in the treatment project, but that cost is not included in the billion-dollar price tags. The City of Victoria’s engineering department has estimated $330 million for the City of Victoria alone to eliminate its inflow and infiltration “problem.”
With Option 10, though, inflow and infiltration aren’t a problem. Instead, they’re a natural benefit—a gift from the sky—that helps to dilute the effluent and reduce the concentration of suspended solids closer to the Fisheries Act regulations’ limit. That extra water would reduce the amount of seawater that needs to be pumped and thus would lower the operating costs of Option 10. Under Option 10, the region would save not only the $800 million difference in capital cost for treatment compared to the CRD’s options, but also the $420 million cost of waterproofing sewers. (The Uplands’ combined sewer/storm drains is a special case that does need to be fixed.)
Option 10 shouldn’t be the CRD’s starting position, though. It ought to be its fallback position. To start with, our regional, provincial and federal representatives should be going to the federal and provincial governments and presenting Option 9.
In exercising Option 9, our leaders try to negotiate an annual voluntary payment to allow the community to continue to use the giant tidal-powered treatment system off Clover Point and Macaulay Point until such time as either the federal or provincial government provides scientific proof that the current system is doing harm. If the feds or the Province can’t provide that proof within four years, the community gets its money back and stops payments.
Under the Fisheries Act, fines levelled against polluters often go to the Environmental Damages Fund. According to Environment Canada, the fund provides “a mechanism for directing funds received as a result of fines, court orders, and voluntary payments to priority projects that will benefit our natural environment.”
What might be an appropriate voluntary payment to offer the federal government in the negotiation? CRD taxpayers are currently paying about $10 million each year for the never-ending sewage treatment planning process. That’s only enriching already mega-rich consultants like Stantec. Instead, why not offer the feds the $10 million per year we would otherwise pay to Stantec or the consultant de jour? If the feds say “No,” then we go to Option 10.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine. For an excellent overview of Victoria's sewage treatment issue as an example of a serious failure by senior governments to make evidenced-based policy decisions, he recommends "Optics Trump Evidence: The Seaterra Project in Victoria" by Prof Rebbeca Warburton.