Sewage treatment plan options need an independent assessment. What are the odds?

The moderator of the Downtown Residents’ Association April 2nd public forum on sewage described the panel as being of “rock star” calibre: Albert Sweetnam, Seaterra Project Director; Geoff Young, Victoria Councillor, Chair of the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee; Richard Atwell, Director, Sewage Treatment Action Group (STAG); and, Vic Derman, Saanich Councillor, CRD Board Director. Indeed, the Association couldn’t have done a better job in securing the  key representatives to address the sewage issue at this critical stage in its development.

Mr. Sweetnam and Director Young made a case for why the CRD’s secondary treatment plan must proceed without delay and why a distributed tertiary system (a.k.a. the RITE Plan) isn’t viable. Mr. Atwell advocated for the tertiary option and pointed out the shortcomings of the CRD’s proposal. Director Derman maintained that due diligence had not been done in determining the best approach for sewage treatment.

The format provided each panelist with a five minute opening statement. This was followed by two rounds for panelists to provide additional information and respond to that of the others. The final phase was a question and answer period, with the moderator reading out written questions from the audience. Although the format didn’t allow for any direct exchanges among panelists, one did take place, when Director Derman directly apologized to Mr. Sweetnam during the Q&A session for having accused him (in an earlier round) of being “misleading” on the issue of ocean outfall and back up requirements for a distributed tertiary system.

Similar accusations — misinformation, untruth, incorrect, wrong, inaccurate, propaganda, etc. — were lobbed back and forth during rounds two and three. The line Director Derman appeared to cross was accusing someone of misleading, rather than that his information was misleading. The distinction, if it existed at all, seemed irrelevant to the audience. And by 9pm, they were still left with an overwhelming amount of contradictory information and no way to separate the complete, reliable and trustworthy from the misleading and biased.

A round or two of direct exchanges between panelists may have helped a bit in this regard. But just a bit. A much more significant intervention seems necessary at this point to assess the conflicting claims and determine the best way forward. It’s along the lines of what Director Derman has been after for some time. As he requested, just before the Q&A session, “Let’s stop throwing out all these red herrings and open up the process to an independent comparison.” If, he continued, the CRD plan is deemed the best, then “… so be it.”

It’s a move that STAG director Mr. Atwell would certainly welcome. It was also behind the final written question from the audience that the moderator used to wrap up the evening: “How has the CRD validated that this is the best plan in terms of value for money and environmental impact?”

It’s unclear what else has to be in place for a third-party independent review to be initiated. There’s definitely time for one in light of the assurances from the Minister of Environment that funding would be secure with a deadline extension to 2020 (see Fact #3 in link). Maybe determining the costs of a review, both direct and indirect, would be a reasonable next step.

As for future developments that could put further pressure on the CRD to conclude that a review is essential, two are on the near horizon. One is the April 7th rezoning decision by Esquimalt Council on the CRD’s application for the McLoughlin Point treatment facility. The other is a petition calling for a review, that will be presented to the provincial government before the end of the current legislative session.

Then again, there’s the definitive development on the far (but getting closer) horizon — November’s municipal elections. If the pro-Seaterra view prevails at the polls, then that should end the debate. If not, however, CRD residents may finally get the independent review of the $780-million dollar project they have demanded.

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