Let’s pay now, not later, to stop fouling the ocean

by Christianne Wilhelmson

Opinion Editorial published in the Times-Colonist, January 24, 2003

“It’s too costly”, “[It] looks expensive”, “Make sure it’s cost effective”.

The lines above caught my eye as I read about the proposal to upgrade the region’s septic field monitoring system (CRD may police septic fields, January 9).

It’s encouraging to see that the CRD wants to protect streams and ground water from the contamination of 30,000 septic tanks. But it’s ironic that at the same time we continue to ignore the impacts of the sewage of 300,000 CRD residents.

What’s even more disturbing is the excuse we so often use to fight programs designed to protect the health of citizens and the environment: cost.

Protecting streams and shellfish beds from septic tank contaminants costs too much.

Protecting the Juan de Fuca Strait from the 100 million litres of sewage and toxic chemicals dumped daily costs too much.

It seems we often decide whether something is worth doing based only on how much it costs up-front.

But when it comes to our sewage, what is the cost of doing nothing? Are we ready to talk about that?

Tourism is Victoria’s single largest industry, accounting for an estimated 33,500 jobs. Tourism Victoria projects tourism revenues for 2002 to be $1.069 billion. Victoria presents itself to the world as the City of Gardens and offers visitors a touch of old England.

But even the English stopped dumping their sewage into their backyards in the mid-1800s!

Reputation is everything in tourism, and just like our sewage, Victoria’s reputation is going down the toilet.

We’re becoming known not for our city’s history or beauty, but as the one remaining major centre in Canada that dumps raw sewage and toxic chemicals straight into the marine environment, untreated. I’d imagine this isn’t the image Tourism Victoria has in mind for its next campaign!

Halifax and St John’s, the other long-time holdouts, are now building sewage treatment plants. This leaves Victoria standing alone in the belief that we can dump raw sewage and the ocean will simply wash away any ill effects.

The financial costs of these new initiatives on the Atlantic coast are being shared among the local, federal and provincial governments. Why isn’t Greater Victoria clamouring for the same kind of help?

Our neighbours in the United States are also coming clean. Only 40 kilometres across the Strait, the city of Port Angeles now has secondary sewage treatment. They share our waters; what motivated them to address this issue that doesn’t motivate us?

Even the marine industry — hardly the biggest contributor to the problem — is making efforts. Led by Transport Canada, they are working to create new regulations to reduce the impact of commercial ship and recreational boat sewage on our waterways.

The capital region’s reputation isn’t all bad. It has developed strong programs to protect human health and the environment. Our anti-smoking by-law protects the health of workers and customers. Our parks and green space system is one of the best in Canada, conserving the natural beauty of the region and making it accessible to all. Why is it that we can’t muster the same kind of energy to tackle our sewage?

It’s easy to convince ourselves that there is no problem. It’s out of sight and therefore out of mind.

But is it really?

The closure of shellfish beds and increase in toxic chemicals in fish and marine mammals along our shores show that what is out of sight is not always harmless.

The fate of the killer whale is a good example. The southern resident orcas that we all love to watch are at risk of extinction, with just 78 individuals left. Toxic contamination is one of the reasons. In fact, whales that have washed up on our shores recently are so filled with chemicals such as PCBs, that the bodies are considered toxic waste. The toxins in the fish they eat have built up in their blubber and some of these toxins come from our sewage outfalls.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Secondary treatment can remove up to 99% of the PCBs in wastewater. If the CRD had this level of sewage treatment, we could contribute to the solution instead of being part of the problem.

Sewage contains many more harmful substances than any of us care to recognize and its impacts go far beyond just pollution of local beaches. Over the long-term, they weave their way into the health of our families, the environment and our local economy.

We need to look at the whole picture and ask ourselves if we’re ready to live with the consequence of our inaction.

The CRD must join other communities across Canada in taking responsibility for the waste it creates. If we don’t, others will start making choices that leave us far behind … and the costs will be higher than we ever imagined.

Christianne Wilhelmson is the Clean Air & Water Program coordinator for the Georgia Strait Alliance