The choice of the controversial site over Rock Bay will lead to hundreds of millions in costs that could have been avoided.
UNPUBLICIZED WARNINGS from the engineering company Stantec to the Seaterra Commission in 2013 show there’s a big difference between what the public has been told and what CRD bureaucrats and their corporate proxies know about a wastewater treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. Simply put, a plant squeezed onto the tiny McLoughlin site is going to present regional taxpayers and the environment with big problems. Soon.
Within a few years of the plant’s commissioning, costly new treatment capacity will have to be built elsewhere to avoid the expense and environmental impacts resulting from the heavy use of chemicals that will be needed to keep the plant operating to federal regulation standards. Senior CRD bureaucrats aware of these circumstances failed to disclose to the public McLoughlin’s serious limitations during a 2-year-long reconsideration of the site’s suitability.
As a result of these circumstances, and the CRD’s recent move to start planning for a second wastewater facility in Colwood, Victoria taxpayers will likely be facing a bill for three widely separated treatment plants at an additional cost of hundreds of millions of dollars above what it would have cost to construct a single expandable plant at the relatively spacious Rock Bay site.
Below I will describe a number of issues that arise from the diminutive physical size of the McLoughlin Point property, which a peer review had warned the CRD in 2009 was “extremely small” for a sewage treatment plant. It would appear that issues vital to the public’s understanding of this project have been deliberately hidden from both elected officials and the public. At the end of this article I will examine the question of whether the withholding of this information may have created an avenue for a court challenge of the project.
Let’s start here: In September 2013, Stantec engineers responded to what they called “pointed questions” about the capacity of a proposed wastewater treatment plant at McLoughlin Point to handle expected liquid flows and organic loads.
The engineers’ written response to these questions, submitted by the Seaterra Commission then overseeing the project, included the distinct possibility that the plant’s design capacity could be exceeded by the time the plant was expected to become operational in 2018. But, if that happened, the engineers told the commission, “CEP operation would most likely be implemented to maintain adequate capacity until 2040.”
Focus was given a tip that led to the Stantec memo. A search of CRD records indicates Stantec’s September 2013 warning was never shared by CRD staff with elected officials in a public meeting.
By “CEP operation” the engineers meant “chemically-enhanced primary treatment,” (CEPT) a costly and increasingly contentious add-on to primary treatment that is sometimes employed to reduce the level of phosphorous and/or nitrogen being discharged to waters that are particularly sensitive to eutrophication, such as lakes. During CEPT operation, three different chemicals are injected into the influent as it flows through a wastewater plant, increasing the rate at which solids are removed.
But those chemicals end up in the sludge produced by sewage treatment and create a big problem: The sludge can’t be incinerated, used as fertilizer, or recycled in any useful way. UBC engineering professor Dr Don Mavinic, an expert on sewage treatment, told Focus in 2014: “This is a huge problem in Ontario right now. It’s become very contentious. Very few landfills will accept the sludge now. Most incinerators won’t touch it. Ontario has ended up with this chemical soup that has to be stored somewhere because you can’t do anything with it.”
In Victoria’s case, DFO scientists have determined that eutrophication isn’t a concern. But CEPT is also used in plants that have reached the upper limit of their design capacity. The aging Lions Gate treatment plant in North Vancouver—slated for replacement by 2020—began using CEPT in 2014 as it bumped up against its capacity limit. That a new plant at McLoughlin Point would need to implement CEPT soon after it had been constructed in order “to maintain adequate capacity,” as Stantec acknowledged in 2013, is extraordinary.
In the recent 18-month-long consideration of optional sites, McLoughlin wasn’t on the table. As a result, questions about the site’s suitability lay dormant and Victorians were never informed that the excess capacity of a treatment plant there could be used up as early as 2018.
Prompted by a letter to CRD directors from this reporter, the issue of McLoughlin Point’s limited capacity was raised at a CRD Board meeting on September 14. At that meeting, elected officials voted to proceed with the McLoughlin treatment plant. But before that vote, CRD directors were given an opportunity to question members of a “Project Board.” The Project Board’s Chair, Jane Bird, and Vice Chair Don Fairbairn—both Vancouver residents who have no previous experience directly related to sewage treatment—took questions about the Project Board’s choice of McLoughlin Point over other options.
CRD Director Colin Plant asked whether the McLoughlin plant would have sufficient excess capacity. Fairbairn told Plant, “We have the highest level of confidence that under a low, medium, high population growth scenario, this plant will have adequate capacity for a minimum of 20 years…It can be very difficult for a non-technical person, such as myself, to understand. That’s why we do have to rely upon the expert opinions of firms like Stantec, as well as on the years of expertise with your staff.”
Fairbairn’s response ignored the advice Stantec had given the Seaterra Commission in 2013. Its expert opinion then was: “At an increased growth rate of 2.1 percent, the plant capacity is reached much sooner by the year 2018…To cope with the high growth rate scenario, CEP operation would most likely be implemented to maintain adequate capacity until 2040.” Now Fairbairn was claiming Stantec’s expert opinion was that, under any population growth scenario, capacity would last “for a minimum of 20 years.”
For clarity, the organic loading capacity of the plant referred to by Stantec in 2013—35,000 kilograms per day—was exactly the same as the plant Fairbairn was referring to. Various documents authored by Stantec and other consultants show the critical limiting design factor for a McLoughlin plant is organic loading—referred to by wastewater engineers as biochemical oxygen demand—not hydraulic flow. Stantec’s 2013 projection that peak organic loading in Victoria’s sewers could reach McLoughlin’s limited design capacity by 2018 was based on a population growth projection of 2.1 percent per year. At a growth rate of half that (lower than the CRD is currently using for its projections), Stantec’s arithmetic shows the McLoughlin plant could run out of capacity by 2023. That date is within a few years of the CRD’s hoped-for completion date of 2020.
Bird and Fairbairn did not respond to requests from Focus for information. The CRD refused to answer questions related to McLoughlin’s capacity limitations.
CRD directors have been told that CEPT would be employed during significant “wet weather events,” but they have never been told—in public—that its regular use could be needed as early as 2018 as a result of the plant’s capacity being exceeded.
Yet Mavinic’s 2014 concern that CEPT chemicals create sludge that “you can’t do anything with” seems to have been incorporated in the Project Board’s two recommended options for dealing with McLoughlin’s sludge. Both options included perpetual storage of the sludge in “biocell reactors,” which would be, essentially, permanent hills of toxic poop composting beside Willis Point Road, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with them.
Residents in the area worried about the impact of the piles on air and groundwater quality will have to hope that a safe way to dispose of the sludge will be found one day. The Project Board only suggested they could be “mined” for a “beneficial use” once such a use had been discovered.
The evidence indicates, then, that three vitally important pieces of information about a plant at McLoughlin Point were hidden by CRD staff from both elected officials and the public while the community evaluated other site locations: Its very limited excess capacity; the consequent need for ongoing use of CEPT soon after it is completed; and how CEPT limits what can be done with the sludge produced by the plant. Obscuring of these facts continues.
THERE ARE TWO OTHER CONCERNS arising from McLoughlin’s limited capacity that have also been kept out of view by the CRD: First, how McLoughlin’s small size limited what treatment technology could be used there; and second, the huge additional cost that will result from the need to provide additional capacity using a system of decentralized treatment plants. Let’s look at the former first.
The same 2009 peer review that judged McLoughlin to be “extremely small” questioned the CRD’s initial choice of membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology for secondary treatment and suggested the CRD assess biological aerated filter (BAF) technology as well. That’s the secondary treatment process the CRD eventually chose and, in 2013, the Seaterra Commission, in its “pointed questions” start-up phase, asked for an explanation of that choice.
Stantec engineer Dr Bob Dawson’s reply to the Seaterra Commission described the physical process involved in a BAF plant, and he made a number of observations. Dawson wrote, “BAFs are relatively recent proprietary systems developed in Europe over the last 15 to 20 years and have been gradually introduced into North America over the last 10 years—a similar development timeline as membrane processes.”
But if the technology was so new—Wikipedia calls it an “emerging technology”—then why would the CRD risk using it in Victoria? That’s covered by a second observation made by Dawson: “[BAF] is particularly applicable for locations where there is limited space for construction of a plant…” In other words, McLoughlin Point’s tiny size dictated the use of a highly compact form of treatment for which there was a very short track record.
So what is the experience with BAF in Europe, where it has been used for five or ten years longer than in North America? Here’s what AECOM engineers who were making a comparison of wastewater treatment technology options for Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 2014, said about BAF: “Biological Aerated Filters are not recommended for consideration due to the associated high capital and operational costs. Generally, BAF technology produces effluents with very low suspended solid concentrations. However, after backwash cycles, this can deteriorate resulting in poorer quality effluent, which will reduce the effectiveness of the UV disinfection plant.”
AECOM, by the way, is the global wastewater engineering company that’s one of three partners in Harbour Resource Partners. That’s the consortium that won the contract to build a BAF plant at McLoughlin Point in 2014, a contract recently resurrected by the Project Board.
So, because of McLoughlin Point’s tiny size, Victoria is getting an apparently problematic treatment technology that, compared to more proven technologies, has higher capital and operating costs.
Stantec’s explanation of BAF technology to the Seaterra Commission included information about the filter bed media utilized by the process. Stantec’s memo contained a photograph of expanded polystyrene beads, the filter media used, for example, in one of the few other BAF plants in Canada at Kingston’s Ravensview treatment plant. Polystyrene beads are a soft, friable plastic and since the polystyrene filter bed would be eroded over time by the effluent passing through it—especially if it contains fine, gritty precipitate introduced by CEPT—one can easily imagine a BAF plant being a perpetual source of microplastics flowing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When asked by Focus what filter-bed medium would be used at McLoughlin, Stantec replied, “The filter media for the BAF has not been selected yet as design is not complete.” The contract, however, has been awarded and the CRD would have no real control over what filter bed media is used.
A search of CRD records indicates Stantec’s August 2013 explanation of BAF technology to the Seaterra Commission was never shared by CRD staff with elected officials at an open, public meeting.
NOW LET’S LOOK AT how McLoughlin’s small size will lead to a system of decentralized treatment plants and huge additional costs. Stantec’s 2013 warning to the Seaterra Commission about the site’s limited capacity to accommodate future population growth in the region offered a mitigating strategy—the ongoing use of CEPT. But there’s another solution that would avoid the use of CEPT—building a second treatment plant at a different location. That strategy is actually incorporated in the CRD’s current Liquid Waste Management Plan. CRD staff have said, in several reports, that a second plant should be built in the West Shore because that’s “where most of the growth is occurring.” I’ll show later that this prognostication is demonstrably incorrect, but first consider how the strategy of building a second plant at a different location completely contradicts what the CRD has been saying all along about economy of scale.
If a second plant location could be avoided, wouldn’t taxpayers stand to save many millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—of dollars on capital, operating and borrowing costs? That had always been the position of CRD staff and pro-McLoughlin politicians when they were dismissing the idea of distributed treatment plants as being uneconomical compared to a single plant at McLoughlin. Indeed, the Project Board’s final report states that splitting McLoughlin’s capacity between two plants would increase the capital cost by $245 million. So, by the Project Board’s own reckoning, decentralization would have increased capital costs by 32 percent. That, in turn, would result in higher borrowing costs. Presumably, operating costs would be higher as well.
Paradoxically, then, although the Project Board’s report confirms there is a very high cost that comes with a decentralized system, its choice of McLoughlin Point guarantees that Victoria will get a decentralized system—and the higher costs.
Once McLoughlin’s capacity has been reached, what would an additional plant cost? The Urban Systems-Carollo options analyses, done earlier this year as part of the 18-month-long consideration of optional sites, estimated that by 2030 an additional $250 to $310 million would need to be spent for additional capacity. That estimate didn’t include additional conveyancing costs, which would likely add another $100 million. So with McLoughlin Point as the first step in a decentralized system, the experts are predicting additional costs of $350 to $410 million by 2030.
It’s noteworthy that an outlook to 2030, as was included in the Urban Systems-Carollo analyses, doesn’t appear anywhere in the Project Board’s final report, and isn’t reflected in its estimates of cost per household.
What’s readily apparent from the engineers’ estimates of the high cost of decentralization and the high cost of additional capacity is that a single expandable treatment plant could save the community hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs compared to two widely-separated treatment plants located at McLoughlin Point and in Colwood or Langford. To save those hundreds of millions, though, a site larger than McLoughlin Point would have needed to be available.
As we know, such a site is available—at Rock Bay. Yet the Project Board’s comparison of McLoughlin with Rock Bay gave not one iota of value to Rock Bay’s ability to accommodate expansion far into the future. This, too, is extraordinary.
The Rock Bay site is 2.7 times larger than McLoughlin. Stantec’s rudimentary positioning of a treatment plant at Rock Bay for the Project Board’s report shows just how much of the Rock Bay site was left unused. That room for expansion would have completely eliminated the costly and environmentally-problematic reliance on CEPT “to maintain adequate capacity.” That advantage, too, was given zero value by the Project Board.
It’s also possible that Rock Bay is large enough to accommodate a form of treatment that has lower capital and operating costs than BAF. The Project Board’s comparison of McLoughlin Point with Rock Bay used essentially the same BAF plant on both locations. That must have made for an easy comparison of cost (they should be close to equal), but did Stantec consider a technology with lower capital and operating costs for the much larger site at Rock Bay? It claims, without providing any evidence, that Rock Bay wasn’t large enough to accommodate conventional activated sludge technology. But the new Lions Gate plant in North Vancouver will be sited on a smaller parcel of land than Rock Bay, will be able to process a greater liquid load than the McLoughlin plant, has enough room for on-site anaerobic digesters—and uses lower-cost activated sludge treatment. It’s expected to be expandable to meet the needs of the North Shore well past 2100.
While Fairbairn advised Plant to rely on “the expert opinions of firms like Stantec,” the expert opinions of Stantec have had a habit of selectively disappearing into the bowels of the CRD. Is there a memo somewhere in those depths explaining why Stantec never looked very hard at options other than a BAF plant at McLoughlin Point?
LET'S BACK UP TO CONSIDER THE CRD'S PLAN to build a second treatment plant in either Colwood or Langford. If you think this is unlikely, or not particularly imminent, consider this: When CRD directors voted to go ahead with a treatment plant at McLoughlin Point, they also committed to spend $2 million on initial planning for a second treatment plant in Colwood. Why would the Project Board have made this recommendation if, as Fairbairn put it, “under a low, medium, high population growth scenario, [McLoughlin] will have adequate capacity for a minimum of 20 years…”?
The Project Board, CRD staff and Stantec know that building a plant at McLoughlin Point with limited capacity for future growth means the development of a plan for a second plant needs to start immediately, and that’s what the CRD is doing. The extra business is obviously good for Stantec, but why would the CRD prefer that course instead of choosing Rock Bay, where hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars could be saved by avoiding a decentralized system?
The Project Board claimed a plant at Rock Bay would cost $155 million more than one at McLoughlin. Much of that difference is in the higher cost of land at Rock Bay. The Project Board said the cost difference was “material,” meaning significant, but it didn’t give any material value to the highly valuable room for expansion at Rock Bay. No, the relatively small difference in capital cost doesn’t explain the Project Board’s choice of McLoughlin over Rock Bay.
If Rock Bay had won out over McLoughlin, that could have been construed as a professional and political defeat for all those CRD staff and elected officials who have insisted that the $80 million spent on planning and 10 years of talking had correctly identified McLoughlin as the best location. With careers in the balance, McLoughlin was the emotional favourite.
Other than that, though, there doesn’t appear to be any real justification for the choice. In fact, when the question of why the CRD would choose to put a second plant in Colwood is examined carefully, it becomes clear that a third plant—likely located in Victoria—will be needed in about 20 years.
Even though Colwood and Langford contribute little more than seven percent of the current wastewater load, the CRD plans to put a second plant there anyway. Why? The CRD’s rationale is based on an out-of-date belief that “most of the growth is occurring” there. But over the last six years this belief has proven to be a delusion. The CRD’s own figures show that the increase in the number of people living in the “Core” municipalities has been almost twice that of Langford and Colwood combined.
Moreover, when all sewage-generating development is considered—residential, commercial, institutional and industrial—the wrong-headedness of the CRD’s strategy is even more evident. Over the past 6 years, based on the value of building permits issued in each municipality, the core has seen 2.5 times as much growth in long-term wastewater-producing development as Langford and Colwood. The vast majority of that growth is occurring in Victoria and Saanich. Witness the numerous construction cranes in the Downtown core right now. There is nothing like this happening in Langford and Colwood.
This recent reversal in the focus and form of development, from the suburbs to urban cores, from low density to high density, is taking place elsewhere in North America, including in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Inevitable changes in public policy around energy, housing and transportation in response to the threat of climate change and ocean acidification will accelerate this phenomenon.
As a result of the CRD’s miscalculation of where most growth will occur, putting a limited-capacity plant at McLoughlin and planning for a second plant in the West Shore will put taxpayers in jeopardy of having to pay for three plants. There’s two reasons for that.
First, a second plant on the West Shore won’t be able to serve future growth in Saanich and Victoria without a hugely-expensive reconstruction of the sewer trunks. That’s never going to happen.
Secondly, after a plant is built in Colwood or Langford, the small portion (about seven percent) of McLoughlin’s capacity that would be freed up would soon be gobbled up by growth in Victoria and Saanich. So, 20 years from now, Victorians will be looking for a third treatment site—one that will have to be located in either Victoria or Saanich, where most of the region’s growth is occurring. Where will it go? Clover Point is a likely candidate.
If the cost of decentralization—going from one to two plants—is about 30 percent of the project cost, as the Project Board’s numbers indicate, what would be the additional cost of building three plants instead of one? Forty percent? Fifty percent?
A far more logical, less expensive alternative would have been to put one central plant at Rock Bay—followed by incremental expansion of capacity there as required. The remediated contaminated site at Rock Bay was identified during extensive public consultation as the location for treatment most preferred by the public. Its First Nations owners were eager to sell. The site is already surrounded by industrial operations that provide essential building materials for constructing a city—gravel, concrete, asphalt and beer—businesses that are unlikely to go away in the future. The location was also supported by the mayors of Victoria and Esquimalt.
In spite of all those strong positives, the previously rejected McLoughlin site magically became the recommended option—even though it wasn’t even part of the recent 18-month-long consideration of options. But wait…by not being on the table, the CRD avoided examination of any of McLoughlin’s strong negatives (see above).
THE CRD HAS HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC many significant aspects of this project: McLoughlin’s limited capacity, the need for the use of CEPT, the way in which CEPT would restrict what could be done with the sewage sludge, the known problems with BAF technology, the need for—and cost of—additional capacity, including the certainty of a second plant and the likelihood of a third plant. Yet the provincial Environmental Management Act allows the CRD to proceed with its flawed plan without the need for elector consent through a referendum. In ordinary circumstances, such issues as I’ve outlined here would have been hashed out in public by opposing sides in a referendum.
A citizen’s right to be asked by a municipal government for permission to borrow large sums of money to provide that citizen a service is a basic right in Canada. The Environmental Management Act takes that right away in the case of implementing a Liquid Waste Management Plan. But the Province’s published guidelines promise that electors will be “adequately” consulted. Given the circumstances I’ve described above, there is grave doubt that consultation has been adequate.
With the failure of Victoria’s political representatives to address these issues— they, too, have been kept largely in the dark—do Victoria electors have any avenue through the courts?
I outlined these issues to Victoria lawyer John Alexander, a litigation partner with the law firm Cox Taylor. I noted the EMA’s promise of adequate consultation and asked Alexander if there was any avenue for a judicial review of the Province’s expected approval of the CRD’s McLoughlin-based Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP).
Alexander replied, “From a legal perspective, the question would be stated: Does the Province’s published non-statutory consultation requirement create a legitimate expectation that an Order imposing a LWMP would not be made without consultation?”
Alexander pointed to a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada ruling which states, in part, “[the doctrine of legitimate expectations] is simply an extension of the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness. It affords a party affected by the decision of the public official an opportunity to make representations in circumstances in which there otherwise would be no such opportunity. The court supplies the omission where, based on the conduct of the public official, a party has been led to believe that his or her rights would not be affected without consultation.”
“In other words,” Alexander wrote, “the court sets aside the decision on the basis that [it was] as if some required procedural step was not properly taken.”
Focus readers interested in supporting a legal challenge of the Province’s approval of the CRD’s plan for McLoughlin Point can express that support by contacting us at 250-388-7231, email at email@example.com, or by using the "Contact Us" form on this website. If a legal challenge is organized by Victoria electors, Focus will connect you with the organizers of that challenge.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.