After decades of debate, Victoria is building a sewage treatment plant

Along the rocky south coast of Vancouver Island, hundreds of construction workers are building a nearly $800 million dollar wastewater treatment facility — a project that has been debated for decades and described as long overdue by some, and completely unnecessary by others.

“I think it is huge,” said Elizabeth Scott, deputy project director for the wastewater treatment facility.

“There is a lot of residents that understand the importance of the project … and will feel a great deal of pride in the project for generations to come.”

Wastewater facilities don’t typically stoke civic pride, but the project and its history is unique because most of the Victoria area has never treated its sewage. Currently, it is screened and anything larger than 6mm is blocked. The rest flows into two separate outfall pipes, and is then discharged into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The region is the last major coastal community in North America to dispose of untreated sewage into the marine environment, according to the local government.

Several scientists have repeatedly argued that the area’s cold water and fast flowing currents mean the wastewater is quickly diluted and produces no harmful effects.

However, federal regulations introduced in 2012 now mean that the Capital Regional District, which includes Victoria, Saanich, and Esquimalt, B.C., have to have a treatment plant up and running by the end of 2020.

When the plant is finished, it will include three levels of treatment. Officials say it will be able to remove contaminants that are particularly concerning like pharmaceuticals.

It will also quell the criticism and protest that has been levelled against the region for decades.

Deputy Project Director Elizabeth Scott says the most challenging part of the wastewater treatment project is that it requires laying as much as 30 kilometers of pipe, which will run through urban areas. (Briar Stewart/ CBC News )

“We have had a false image of a garden city and underneath, we had all the sewage going into the ocean,” said James Skwarok, a Victoria teacher who strolled the coasts and streets dressed as “Mr. Floatie” beginning in 2004.

He got the inspiration for his environmental protest about sewage dumping from a character on the cartoon show South Park.

As the mascot for the group P.O.O.P. (People Opposed to Outfall Pollution), Mr. Floatie raised a stink, becoming a walking, visual representation of a message environmental groups had been delivering for years.

“Our beautiful ocean is not a big magical toilet where everything disappears,” Skwarok said. “It was an embarrassment for the tourism industry and for local politicians to have this tall turd walking around.”

Mr. Floatie and other environmentalists ran a public campaign to try and pressure officials to build a wastewater treatment plant. The mascot frequently spoke to tourists visiting Victoria about where the city’s sewage was ending up. (Chat Hipolito/The Canadian Press )

Over the years officials from Washington State have threatened a tourism boycott of the Victoria area because of the sewage issue.

Once construction began on the new wastewater treatment facility in 2017, Mr. Floatie and local politicians headed to Seattle to make amends. As for the mascot costume, it is now retired and sitting the Royal BC museum.

‘Ick Factor’

While the impact of Mr. Floatie and the protests were successful in helping to get the plant built, scientist Tom Pedersen argues the whole campaign obscured the situation.

“I think the whole issue has been driven by misperception of the public and that’s what some of us euphemistically called the ick factor,” he said.

James Skwarok, aka Mr. Floatie, was frequently invited to community events and the mascot briefly ran for Mayor of Victoria in 2005. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Pedersen, who recently retired from the University of Victoria, has held several positions over the years, including Dean of Science, and he served on a marine science panel made up of experts from B.C. and Washington State who studied the sewage issue.

He contends there is no scientific rationale for building the plant because the ocean’s strong tidal currents are naturally decomposing what is in the wastewater. He adds it is one of the very few spots in the world where it safe to dispose of sewage this way

With construction well underway, he understands that the treatment facility is a done deal, but he suggests that when it comes to marine protection, the $765 million spent on the plant could have been better used elsewhere.

Tom Pedersen recently retired from the University of Victoria, but has been studying the sewage issue for years. He believes the wastewater treatment facility is unnecessary. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

When the plant is up and running, it will provide sewage treatment for an area with a population of about 320,000. The facility will treat more than 100 million litres of wastewater each day, and the sewage sludge that is left over will be pumped to a separate facility where it will be turned into biosolids.

Officials say the hope is to be able to use those to fuel cement kilns.

“The regulations that the federal government put into place gave us a firm deadline,” said Colin Plant, board chair for the Capital Regional District. 

He said debates over the science became moot once those regulations were put into place. He believes many Canadians may be surprised when they learn that the Victoria area hasn’t been treating its sewage, considering Vancouver Island has a reputation for being green and environmentally progressive.

“The general public is of the mind now that, thank goodness, we’re finally doing the right thing.”

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