Esquimalt council was met with a standing ovation Monday night when it not only rejected – but unanimously slammed the door on future proposals – for a sewage treatment plant on its shoreline.
The decision has ramifications not only for the timeline and cost of the Capital Regional District’s $783-million project, but for the region’s autonomy: The provincial government now has the authority to intervene and force rezoning at McLoughlin Point.
“The reaction to Esquimalt saying, ‘We don’t want the plant at all,’ has changed the transaction. It’s shut down some options and really limited the ways we can move forward,” said Geoff Young, chair of the CRD’s core area liquid waste management committee.
During months of negotiations, the CRD included up to $13 million in mitigating features like street upgrades and strict odour monitoring to make more palatable the rezoning of Esquimalt’s waterfront property for a wastewater treatment plant.
Negotiations even included a $5,000, one-hour boat cruise past McLoughlin Point, funded through the Seaterra program budget, to allow the public a visitor’s look at the site.
But Esquimalt’s unanimous opposition to the rezoning bylaw Monday night means the CRD is appealing to the province for help. For Mayor Barb Desjardins, that decision was simply the result of elected officials doing their job.
“When you get a standing ovation after you take your vote, you’ve obviously met the public’s needs,” Desjardins said. “It’s really my hope that both CRD and the province recognize the message and where it came from: the public, from all across the region.”
Desjardins said CRD officials failed to deliver some requested information including details on First Nations consultation, meeting minutes and an independent tsunami report for McLoughlin Point during the rezoning process.
“The same company that provided a tsunami report is one of the groups bidding on this facility. Does that seem appropriate? Certainly not from the public’s perspective. That was a big letdown,” she said.
Desjardins stressed a “re-evaluation” of the entire project would be prudent after witnessing public reaction over the past two months.
At a committee meeting Wednesday, CRD directors voted to ask the provincial cabinet to intervene: either force through McLoughlin Point rezoning or provide other options.
Provincial intervention could prove more complex than anticipated. In response to a question from Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver in the legislature Tuesday, Environment Minister Mary Polak said the province has no plans to wade into the sewage debate.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this is an issue that the local governments need to grapple with, understanding that they’re the ones who are obligated to begin treatment of their sewage. We have no plans to intervene,” Polak said.
In addition to McLoughlin Point’s wastewater plant, a biosolids processing facility is slated for Hartland landfill in Saanich, requiring 18 kilometres of pipelines and pumping stations between the two facilities.
Public opinion split
Public input continues to be a mixed bag, Young said. Some residents believe no treatment is necessary while others argue tertiary treatment is the only responsible solution.
“Some are against the project because they think it’s too much treatment, and others think it’s not enough,” Young said. “The committee has done a lot of research, we’ve looked at a lot of sites and this seems to be best available.”
CRD directors and staff have considered land at Haro Woods, along the Upper Harbour and at the much-loathed Viewfield Road industrial site, but McLoughlin and Hartland now represent the best available options, he said. Cost implications also weigh heavily on Young’s mind.
“The delay connected with us trying to find new sites elsewhere – which would be every bit of hard as it’s been up to now – or to develop a tertiary system, or trying to oppose treatment altogether – we could do any of those things, but I’m virtually certain that wouldn’t change the outcome. But it would result in those federal and provincial grants being reduced or eliminated.”
The CRD, province and federal government are responsible for one-third of the $783-million core area secondary sewage treatment project, while any cost overruns are the responsibility of CRD taxpayers.
The project is now in the implementation phase as communications, archaeology and commission member contracts have all been signed. Seaterra program director Albert Sweetnam is overseeing the project with an annual salary of $290,000.
Each month of delay to the project timeline is estimated to add $1 million to the overall cost.
Edited comments from the CRD core area waste liquid waste management committee, April 9, 2014:
- Denise Blackwell:“The last time we spoke to the minster, she said the plan is the plan. So I believe it’s time for her to deal with that. … Our staff have worked very, very hard … to try and figure out what the needs of Esquimalt are so that we can accommodate them. … Despite all the diligence and very hard work by our staff over a number of years to try and find another alternative, a different place to put this … we want to proceed with something that is the least cost option to the taxpayers of the region. None of us want to unfairly burden our taxpayers. … I think this is how we have to proceed, unfortunately.”
- Geoff Young: “I did attend all of the 13 hours of (Esquimalt’s) public hearings. … On the basis of that, I have to conclude that some of the options that I might have hoped would be open to us with regard to mediation or arbitration or meeting of the minds in terms of some of the issues with height and setback and so forth, or amenities and cost-sharing, I have to report on the basis of listening to that discussion, I do not hold those out as being helpful or likely options. … I didn’t hear a lot of discussion at all about amenities, or the nature of amenities. … Given the discussion at Esquimalt council and the motion that followed the decision to reject the rezoning, I would have to conclude that I could not recommend to you that any kind of mediation, arbitration or compromised proposal is likely to be fruitful.”
- Barb Desjardins: “The public input … was very, very, very clear. And I have to tell the rest of this table, it’s unfortunate you weren’t there because this was not just Esquimalt. These were your residents. … They were not saying no to sewage treatment. They were saying that this site, McLoughlin Point, is the wrong site for a sewage treatment plant. The public have spoken and the public will continue to speak. Should we go down this route, you need to understand these are your public who are speaking as well. … This is a regional issue, it was a regional decision made by one local council, and we listened to everyone.”