An upcoming by-election in Victoria is shaping up to be a de facto referendum on the city’s sewage treatment plan.
A proposed $783-million treatment facility has become a hot-button issue since the federal and provincial governments agreed to share costs for the project this summer.
The federal government ordered Victoria to start treating its sewage in 2006, but that hasn’t stopped some candidates in the by-election from questioning whether new measures are needed.
“Our situation is unique,” says Green Party candidate Donald Galloway. “We’re rushing the issue and condemning taxpayers to a huge increase.”
Figures released by the Capital Regional District estimate the proposed plant will cost homeowners between $232 and $353 per year depending on their location.
On Oct. 7, Galloway published a blog post questioning whether Victoria even needs sewage treatment. He says currents, temperatures and other aspects of the Juan de Fuca Strait render organic sewage a non-problem.
“Nature is on our side,” said Galloway in the post.
Although he stands by what he said online, Galloway told Metro the blog was a “work in progress,” and cautioned against dismissing sewage treatment plans entirely.
“Currently, it’s all being carried away and broken down, but at some point we may actually reach a critical moment where a decision will have to be made,” he said.
Galloway draws his conclusions from scientific research being conducted at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. The institute’s director, Tom Pedersen, says the environmental impact of Victoria’s sewage has been “intensely monitored” for decades.
“At the present time, and given our current population, there is no negative impact of any significance,” Pedersen says.
Pedersen says public opinion about sewage in has been influenced by problems experienced in Halifax in the 1990s and early 2000s. Raw sewage was pumped into the city’s harbour for over two centuries, eventually leading to significant environmental issues.
But comparing the situation in Halifax to Victoria is like comparing “chalk and cheese,” Pedersen said.
“Bedford Basin [in Halifax] is a very poor place to put sewage,” he says. “Contrast that with Victoria, where on our doorstep is the Juan de Fuca Strait, one of the most rapidly churning, oxygen and nutrient-rich bodies of water along the Western coast of North America.
“That distinction has not been recognized at the federal level where they paint all sewage treatment with the same paintbrush.”
Pedersen does say the Strait of Juan de Fuca has a finite capacity for handling sewage, but wouldn’t speculate how much Victoria’s population would have to grow to put stress on it. However, he expects the current sewage system to be sustainable for at least the next 20 to 40 years.
Liberal candidate Paul Summerville has also spoken out against the proposed treatment facility, while the NDP, represented by environmental lawyer Murray Rankin, does not oppose the new plant.
A date for the by-election has not been called since incumbent NDP MP Denise Savoie stepped down in August. However, it is expected to take place in conjunction with two others in Calgary Centre and Durham, Ont. near the end of November.