Gutter politics and smelly debates are hallmarks of British Columbia politics, but in Victoria, the capital city, sewage treatment has been raising a political stink for decades.
Environment Minister Mary Polak warned area taxpayers on Tuesday that they could be on the hook for up to $500-million in extra taxes if the cities and districts in the Capital Regional District can’t decide where to locate a sewage treatment plant.
Polak said she won’t intervene in a dispute, but suggested government funds are in danger of being flushed away if project deadlines are missed.
“The question isn’t whether or not they will get sewage (treatment),” said Polak. “They will because it’s a federal and provincial requirement. The question is do they foot the bill entirely, their taxpayers. Or is it the federal and provincial government that assists them.”
Victoria is one of the few remaining Canadian cities that does little to treat its sewage, essentially pumping 130 million litres of raw effluent daily into the Juan de Fuca Strait. Environmentalists and downstream communities complain of pollution, while scientists say the ocean acts as a natural toilet that flushes and disperses waste with minimal environmental impact.
Polak raised concerns about the security of provincial and federal funding for the proposed $783 million project when she officially rejected a request by the CRD to force the Township of Esquimalt to locate the proposed sewage treatment plant on its waterfront.
Esquimalt council voted to reject the district’s plan to locate the plant in its community, one of 13 municipalities within the CRD. The district said Esquimalt’s rejection threatens to delay the project’s 2018 completion timeline, which is part of the funding agreement.
“Ultimately, it’s their decision,” said Polak. “They are the ones who have the obligation to comply and they are the ones who are going to have to answer to their taxpayers at the end of the day because they will be required to have sewage treatment. The question is who will pay for it.”
Victoria-area Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver said project delays by the regional district and ongoing concerns about the effectiveness of the proposed treatment system have alienated residents.
“They’ve lost the public trust on this,” he said. “There’s no social license for the present plan.”
Weaver said he expected sewage treatment in the Victoria area to be the top issue in coming municipal election campaigns this fall.
Sewage treatment was also one of the top issues in the November 2012 federal byelection in the Victoria riding, narrowly won by New Democrat Murray Rankin.
The Liberal candidate rejected sewage treatment, calling it a billion-dollar make-work project for the NDP.
The federal Green Party candidate also opposed the sewage treatment plan. The Conservative candidate started the campaign supporting sewage treatment, but rejected the plan halfway through the race.
During the federal byelection, the varied scientific interpretations of the behaviour of Victoria’s human waste in deep ocean waters was too much for some, including the city’s sewage treatment mascot, Mr. Floatie.
James Skwarok, who has become a local political celebrity for showing up at local and provincial sewage meetings dressed in his brown outfit and bow tie, said the campaign forced him to bring out his brown, feces-shaped costume for what he called his “second movement.”
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