The Poop On Raw Sewage

Reprinted from the Victoria Times Colonist, Sun 07 Aug 2005

Byline: Stephen Salter

The numbers still stagger me. About 100,000 tonnes of raw sewage every day. Forty square kilometres closed to shellfish harvesting. The seabed contaminated with heavy metals. Sewage on the ocean surface eight months a year, and surface fecal coliform levels 17 times above Canadian guidelines (windsurfers, take note).

Victoria is the last Canadian city without plans for sewage treatment.

Core area sewage (Oak Bay, Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal, Colwood, Langford) flows untreated to the sea, though our Capital Regional District operates a modern $20-million treatment plant in North Saanich that complies with existing federal environmental laws. It’s puzzling; if you flush in North Saanich or Sidney the waste deserves treatment, but not so in Victoria.

That’s politics, not science.

Under the Constitution Act of 1867, the federal government has jurisdiction to protect Canada’s coastal and inland fisheries. Since 1868, we’ve used the Fisheries Act to protect our oceans from corporate polluters, but who protects the oceans from us, Victoria’s good citizens?

An Environment Canada measure of pollution is the “acute lethality test,” where 10 fish must survive 96 hours in undiluted wastewater. Undiluted, to ensure nothing toxic enters our environment.

Pulp mills and mayors across Canada report these tests to ensure compliance with the Fisheries Act. Non-compliance can bring charges; Environment Canada prosecuted Dawson City, Quesnel, Iqualuit and Terrace for spills of raw sewage.

Remember we silently, invisibly “spill” the equivalent of 2,600 truckloads of sewage daily through outfalls off Clover Point and Macaulay Point.

When Sierra Legal Defence arranged tests from these outfalls, fish began dying in 20 minutes, not 96 hours. Our officials cannot say on record whether our sewage complies with existing federal environmental laws. How did we come to believe treatment is optional?

The issue must have seemed daunting when it surfaced years ago. Somehow the legend became that it’s too expensive to treat core area sewage, and in our case it’s not really pollution anyway.

Environmentalists tangled with “scientific” arguments that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” a line we reject from corporations.

The CRD wrote a Liquid Waste Management Plan which has merits, but postpones treatment. Although signed by B.C., it ignores existing federal legislation and Environment Canada refused to endorse it.

In 2000, officials wrote: “Environment Canada is concerned that the public has not been provided with balanced information related to environmental considerations for sewage treatment and disposal for CRD.”

CRD staff develop excellent programs, like recovering Hartland landfill biogas to power the technology park, and working to curb chemical pollutants at source.

But while mercury in sewage is down 70 per cent, other contaminants are up 91 per cent. In 2002, the Ministry of Environment wrote: “Treatment is not only more effective in reducing contaminants, it is effective immediately upon implementation and will remove a wide array of contaminants not targeted under source control.”

Source control is vital, but it’s misleading to call it treatment. The only thing between our homes or businesses and the ocean are screens to remove plastics.

Rethinking pollution uncovers resources, such as recycling. Victoria’s Dockside residential/commercial development will sell electricity, heat and compost from its sewage.

Vancouver’s sewage plants generate electricity and sell compost. In Sweden, biogas from landfill and sewage treatment powers public transit. Australians convert sewage to biodiesel.

Why not invite solutions from Canada’s outstanding design community through a competition? Running Victoria’s buses on biogas from sewage will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases. Power from the people!

And now Environment Minister Stephane Dion is reminding us that polluting Canadian waters is a Canadian issue, not just a municipal one. He’s also offering help through Green Infrastructure funding, and it’s time to accept.

We hear treatment is expensive — $447 million without grants. But Halifax will spend $180 million for its plants, before counting $60 million from the feds. If our mayors demand their share of resources (electricity, biogas) from sewage, the cost of seven Saanich-sized plants would also be about $180 million.

CRD documents anticipate federal and provincial cost-sharing at one-third each, leaving us with $60 million. With similar operating costs to other plants, that’s one cent per flush, or $90 per household annually — about what my friend Jim pays for treatment in North Saanich. (In Victoria, my utility/tax bill sewer charges total $93 a year.)

Until 1956, Victoria dumped its garbage outside the harbour, and one day we’ll tell our astonished grandchildren how we dumped raw sewage there, too. To hasten that day, let’s publicly debate our options for resource recovery with our mayors. Their contact info is on the CRD website.

Let’s catch up with Canada, and solve this thing before the world visits in 2010. There’s not a moment to waste.

Stephen Salter, PEng, is a Victoria engineer, and volunteer with the Victoria Sewage Alliance.