Victoria, that shimmering jewel in Canada’s urban crown, has since its founding been hiding a dirty secret, one that is now being debated openly. What residents of Victoria and the greater Capital Regional District have always known is that its sewage was being pumped, screened but otherwise untreated, directly into the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, at a rate of 83 million stinking litres per day.
Plans to set that right were put in motion in 2006 on orders from the province, and were given further impetus by the federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (SOR/2012-139) which, in 2012, made secondary treatment mandatory.
But now, plans for a $780-million sewage treatment plant are stalled. The City of Esquimalt, chosen by the Capital Regional District to host the proposed treatment plant, is refusing to rezone the chosen property to allow construction. The province has declined to intervene in a matter (zoning) within municipal jurisdiction. The Governor of the neighbouring State of Washington has written a sternly-worded letter to the Premier, reminding her that the province agreed to deal with the problem 20 years ago, and hinting that further delays will strain relations between the two governments.
Opponents of the plans fall mostly into two camps, says Margot Venton, a lawyer with Ecojustice who, on behalf of her clients, is trying to move the project forward once more. Longstanding opponents to sewage treatment argue that Victoria’s waste is really little more than a drop in a very big ocean. No treatment is needed, they say. Another group opposes the plans as currently drawn, labelling a large sewage treatment plant the technology of previous generations and calling instead for a more modern, decentralized approach.
Venton and her clients have sympathy for the latter group. However, cost and practicality stand in the way of a state-of-the-art system. There is sewage infrastructure already in place. The pipes are in the ground, Venton told EcoLog News, making a large treatment plant far more practicable.
On behalf of the Georgia Strait Alliance and the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, Venton has now warned Esquimalt city council that she will press to have the two outfalls for the Capital Regional District’s sewage cleaned up unless it allows the sewage treatment plant to go forward. In 2005, an assessment of the seabeds around the outfalls determined that they qualified as a contaminated site, though no remediation order was issued. Instead, says Venton, the following year (2006) the province ordered the Capital Regional District to build a treatment plant.
“Over time, we’ve kind of forgotten that part of the backstory,” says Venton, but her clients are clear that the outfalls are at the centre of an environmental problem. If the Capital Regional District won’t address it with a treatment plant, the province should address it through remediation.
Ultimately, says Venton, the Capital Regional District is facing two clear demands from two levels of government. There’s the 2006 order from the province, and the new federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations. Between the two, the Capital Regional District really has no choice but to treat its effluent, and to do so fairly soon.
“Ultimately, that’s what my clients want people to understand,” says Venton.