Sewage project board chair “cautiously optimistic” about deadline

Jane Bird has a lot on her plate these days.

Jane Bird has a lot on her plate these days.

As the chair of the new Core Area Wastewater Treatment Project Board, she’s tasked with wading through thousands of documents pertaining to Greater Victoria’s ongoing sewage saga and coming up with a recommendation on where a treatment facility should be constructed.

She admits it’s a significant amount of work to cram into a few months, but Bird is cautiously optimistic the panel will have a recommendation before their deadline at the end of September.

“The biggest challenge is being clear and transparent about why we’ve come up with this option and why it makes sense. Everyone has a view and it’s difficult to balance the values of various communities with things like cost and schedule,” said Bird, noting the six-member board has worked on a number of large infrastructure projects in the past. Some of them, including herself, have no history with the region’s lengthy sewage debate.

“What’s different about this one is that it has such a long history in its development phase and so it’s a little bit more complicated to untangle and try to identify a path forward…but I am hopeful we’ll be able to untangle it and move forward.”

The subject of sewage treatment has been a contentious one for more than 30 years in Greater Victoria, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Despite the arguments made by local scientists, the federal government has deemed Victoria as high-risk when it comes to its current method of discharging screened sewage into the ocean. The classification means the region has to move towards secondary sewage treatment by 2020 in order to comply with federal wastewater regulations.

Two years ago, the region came close to constructing a facility at Esquimalt’s Macaulay Point, but the township rejected the plan, citing concerns with the environmental impact and size of the facility.

In March, the CRD took another stab at the matter, voting to explore constructing two tertiary treatment facilities at Clover Point in Victoria and McLoughlin or Macaulay points in Esquimalt at an estimated cost of around $1 billion. A third facility would be constructed somewhere in the West Shore. The proposal, however, sparked public backlash from both communities and needed approval from both Victoria and Esquimalt council in order to proceed.

With a Sept. 30 deadline looming to submit a plan on wastewater treatment or risk losing millions of dollars in funding, the province waded into the matter in May to help find a way to move forward. An independent panel of six experts, including Bird, has since been established to come up with a business case that will be presented to the CRD in mid-September. CRD directors will ultimately have the final say on where a facility should go.

When it comes to recommending the right location for the sewage treatment plant, Bird noted the panel will be looking at all the alternatives that have been proposed, then determining which ones have the most positive and negative impacts. It’s still too early to say what locations could be recommended, but Bird said the panel will be taking public commentary into consideration.

“It’s a huge amount of work from a technical perspective and also the amount of public consultation and commentary and dialogue that has been underway for so many years,” said Bird, noting the panel is in the process of figuring out the key considerations and themes from the public consultations. “We are tracking well towards the deadline and I am cautiously optimistic we will meet it.”

The project board also plans to establish a due diligence committee to oversee the process. It will likely be comprised of three individuals who have experience with the development and delivery of large programs and wastewater treatment.

The idea behind the committee, said Bird, is to give everybody some comfort that when the panel has finished its work, it’s reviewed by a separate group of people who don’t have any history with the project, yet have some experience in the area.

“It’s not black and white. There are judgements to be applied,” said Bird, a lawyer from the Vancouver office Bennett Jones. “Wastewater treatment is done all over the world. If somebody that’s done a lot of wastewater projects in various applications could say this was a pretty sensible process for what you need, then I think that might give the public and the elected officials some comfort.”