Sewage project ‘political travesty,’ says UVic prof

Current disposal method of marine outfalls causes much less negative environmental impact, says Rebecca Warburton

The Capital Regional District’s sewage treatment project is a classic case of political optics over evidence-based policy, says a University of Victoria professor.

In her paper published in Public Sector Digest this month, public administration associate professor Rebecca Warburton calls the Seaterra project a “political travesty” and argues the current disposal method of marine outfalls causes much less negative environmental impact than land-based treatment.

“This is a very flawed public policy process,” said Warburton, a health economist openly associated with Responsible Sewage Treatment Victoria, an advocacy group opposed to additional sewage treatment in the region.

“If the CRD wants to claim this secondary treatment project is the most cost-effective and environmentally safe option, where is their cost-benefit analysis to prove it,” she said.

Warburton said many in the scientific and academic communities are frustrated by CRD directors who continue to argue that federal and provincial regulations are forcing their hand.

The CRD’s current disposal method of screened raw sewage to marine outfalls has been categorized as high-risk under federal guidelines, stipulating a compliance date of 2020. Some CRD directors like Saanich Coun. Vic Derman have argued the CRD should work to get its sewage effluent recategorized as low-risk, pushing the compliance date to 2040 and allowing the CRD more time to come up with a more sustainable and cost-effective plan.

“The CRD monitors those marine outfalls carefully, and we have one of the best source control programs in Canada,” Warburton said. “Toxic chemicals and metals are kept out of our drains and are properly disposed of. All we really know is there will be minimal positive benefit to the marine environment, but massive negative effects if we move sewage treatment on land.”

In 2006, the CRD commissioned the SETAC report, a technical review of regional land-based sewage treatment. The authors concluded that while there is a tremendous amount of scientific data, the benefits of sewage treatment couldn’t be calculated with any precision. The authors argued public will should dictate the final treatment measures.

Last month, Esquimalt rejected a wastewater treatment plant at McLoughlin Point due to overwhelming public opposition, prompting the CRD to ask Environment Minister Mary Polak to intervene and force through rezoning. Polak declined.

Seaterra project director Albert Sweetnam maintains the project is within its $783-million budget, but is at risk of running behind schedule after Esquimalt’s latest decision.