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  • The case against McLoughlinism

    David Broadland

    January 2015

    Will Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen and Victoria’s Dwayne Kalynchuk lead the region’s big issue back to a gunfight at McLoughlin Point?


    THE EFFORT TO LOCATE a central sewage treatment plant at Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point has shifted into a new phase. After being temporarily shut down by Environment Minister Mary Polak’s refusal to force Esquimalt to host the facility, the McLoughlinuts now seem intent on a campaign to eliminate any other possibility.

    By “McLoughlinut” I mean a person or organization that has repeatedly expressed the belief that any solution to Victoria’s treatment deficit must include a large secondary treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. The McLoughlinut mantra is that anything else is “too expensive.”

    Before November’s election campaigns began, the community’s attention was riveted on the apparent failure of the CRD to locate a $783-million central treatment plant on the rocky point at the entrance to Victoria Harbour. Pro-McLoughlin politicians and power-brokers in the region hoped the election would bring a broad repudiation of the Barb Desjardins-Richard Atwell-Lisa Helps-Cairine Green alliance. None of these mayoral candidates were McLoughlinuts.

    If that had happened it seems likely the CRD’s plan for central sewage treatment would have been quickly reactivated and a delegation of re-elected mayors sent to Ms Polak to seek reversal of her April decision. Instead, Desjardins received a bigger vote and Atwell and Helps defeated two of the most powerful supporters of the McLoughlin plan. But a number of staunch McLoughlinuts were re-elected as CRD directors, along with David Screech as mayor of View Royal. Screech has, in the past, supported the McLoughlin plan.

    Indeed, at the first CRD board meeting attended by newly-elected mayors and councillor-directors, McLoughlinut Nils Jensen, the re-elected mayor of Oak Bay, defeated Desjardins in a secret-ballot election for chair of the board. In an interview with CBC’s Gregor Craigie the following day, Jensen outlined his idea of a process to find a solution to the sewage treatment issue. He said the CRD was encouraging “people to come forward if they have a proposal for their community for a single plant. That’s one track. The other track that’s being contemplated is eastside and westside committees looking at a two-plant solution.” Jensen, who famously missed most of the CRD’s sewage committee meetings in his first term, subsequently anointed himself chair of that committee.

    The fundamental difference between the region’s two sewage factions is based on two factors. First, whether or not the burden of hosting sewage treatment should be shared equitably: the McLoughlinuts say the burden should be forced on Esquimalt, but Esquimalt says it will take them to court if they try. Secondly, the quality of treatment—should it be lower quality secondary treatment or higher quality tertiary treatment? The McLoughlinuts say tertiary treatment is too expensive, their opponents say that has never been proven. Mixed into both positions are claims of potential resource and energy recovery. But neither position depends on including or excluding that possibility.

    The westside mayors (Esquimalt, Colwood, View Royal, Langford), along with First Nations participants, have begun a public engagement process to consider their options. The fact those mayors have agreed there might be an option to McLoughlin Point eliminates them as McLoughlinuts, at least for now.

    But on the eastside, there’s been no real progress toward a non-McLoughlin solution. A shout-out from the CRD last September for all communities to put forward a possible site for a treatment plant in their community produced no response from Victoria, Oak Bay or Saanich. Victoria decided in October to at least go through the motions of considering a plan B, but a December 18 meeting of its council suggests that process has been designed to lead right back to McLoughlin Point.

    At that meeting councillors received a progress report on the engineering and public works department’s exploration of a sub-regional treatment system. Urban Systems has been awarded a contract to design a public engagement process that will allow the public to make its preferences about sewage treatment known. Invoking the example of the Johnson Street Bridge, Councillor Pam Madoff suggested council should make it clear to the public that councillors would not necessarily act on those preferences.

    After addressing the issue of how to politely ignore public input, councillors voted to initiate investigation of potential sites for sewage treatment. In doing that they seemed not to have comprehended that Director of Engineering and Public Works Dwayne Kalynchuk had already outflanked any move to a non-McLoughlin solution by appointing a proven, reliable soldier to kill that possibility at the outset.

    Here’s how that happened: Last October, after the apparent failure of the CRD’s McLoughlin plan and the splitting off of the westside group, the City of Victoria realized it might need to find its own way. Overseeing exploration of that fell to Kalynchuk’s department. It issued an RFP for an engineering study that would make recommendations on the City’s treatment options. The RFP cited a 2009 Kerr Wood Leidal study and instructed responding engineering companies to use the same costing assumptions that Kerr Wood Leidal had used in 2009. At that December 18 meeting councillors learned that the contract had been awarded to Kerr Wood Leidal. That should have triggered an alarm in council chambers and here’s why:

    Back in 2009, Kalynchuk was at the CRD heading the effort to develop regional sewage treatment. Under his leadership, the engineering firm Kerr Wood Leidal (in partnership with two other engineering firms) undertook a study of distributed treatment plants. Its findings have provided the entire basis for the pro-McLoughlin origin story that claims, as a recent Times Colonist editorial put it, “The CRD’s waste-treatment committee did extensive professional studies into the options, including distributed treatment, which was deemed to be too expensive, and came up with the proposal for the central plant.”

    The Kerr Wood Leidal study’s findings, though, have been dismissed by the Sewage Treatment Action Group and other knowledgeable critics as having little or no applicability to the network of tertiary treatment plants STAG envisioned in its RITE Plan. Some of the criticisms are easy to understand. The Kerr Wood Leidal study’s cost estimates, for example, were for secondary treatment. That form of treatment would have required construction of nine new marine outfalls, but a system of strategically-located tertiary treatment plants could use existing outfalls. Another criticism has been that Kerr Wood Leidal used population growth projections that have since proven to be too high, and so its cost estimates were based on building plants that would provide greater capacity than is currently required or even projected. RITE Plan proponents want a cost estimate based on addressing current capacity requirements, and suggest small plants could be added later as needed.

    One finding of the study that’s hard to comprehend involves the energy recovery estimates it developed. Kerr Wood Leidal used a methodology and assumptions that led it to conclude there would be more demand for energy in both Colwood and Royal Bay than in downtown Victoria. Since the study produced a result so transparently flawed, its critics say, it can’t be trusted. Yet the study has been used by the Times Colonist, CRD bureaucrats—in fact all McLoughlinuts—as proof that any form of distributed treatment would be “too expensive.”

    Was the 2009 study designed to produce a predetermined result, that distributed plants would be too expensive?

    This appears to be what happened with another pricey infrastructure project, the Johnson Street Bridge. Soon after Kalynchuk left the CRD and became head of the City’s engineering department, a study was done that compared the cost of rehabilitation of the bridge with the cost of replacement. That comparison was fudged to favour replacement. Unrealistic assumptions were imposed (a repaired bridge must last 100 years) that seemed designed to deliver a predetermined outcome.

    History now seems to be repeating itself. There’s little doubt that a new Kerr Wood Leidal study that uses the same costing assumptions as their 2009 study will lead to the same recommendation: a central plant at McLoughlin Point. That property is owned by the CRD, is large enough and has the required zoning in place for a secondary sewage treatment facility that would serve Victoria, Oak Bay and a portion of Saanich.

    Some Victoria taxpayers might experience fainting spells at the thought of the City’s engineering department overseeing development of a sewage treatment project whose starting price is likely to be in the neighbourhood of $300 million. The department, under Kalynchuk’s leadership, has taken the new Johnson Street Bridge project from an original estimate of $63 million to a currently unknown cost—estimated by Focus at about $108 million.

    Ironically, the December 18 council meeting was scheduled to include a quarterly update on the bridge project. That report, dropped from the agenda without explanation, would have included a synopsis of the project’s legal problems, an updated cost estimate and a new completion date. Construction of the main elements on the project’s critical path—the bascule leaf and the bascule pier—was halted last July and October, respectively. That long-anticipated update has been “delayed until the New Year for a fulsome and complete as possible report,” according to Mayor Helps.

    On December 20, a high tide unexpectedly flooded the bascule pier cofferdam raising more questions about the planning and execution of the project. Yet the same folks who shepherded this project are now in charge of sewage treatment.

    Victoria residents who wish to be politely ignored might want to mark their calendars. Councillors requested that a public engagement strategy for sewage treatment options be ready by the end of January.


    FOR INQUIRING MINDS that would like to know if the McLoughlinuts might be wrong, let me introduce you to Oscar Regier. A retired civil engineer, Regier has some 40 years’ experience in the investigation, design, construction and project management of municipal and industrial infrastructure projects. He was the design project manager on the award-winning Dockside Green wastewater treatment plant and he has been giving technical advice to Richard Atwell on the potential for a distributed enhanced-tertiary sewage treatment system for the Victoria region.

    Regier’s tertiary-level sewage treatment plant at Dockside Green sits below Café Fantastico and Fol Epi Bakery between Tyee and Harbour roads. A visit will confirm there’s no odour produced by the plant and  water it reclaims circulates to a series of lush water gardens immediately adjacent to Dockside’s residential towers.

    The Atwell-Helps-Desjardins alternative to a central plant at McLoughlin Point—or anywhere—would rely on adaptation of the Dockside Green technology to a larger scale, which the brain trust at the CRD has convinced the majority of its board members isn’t possible.

    The CRD dismissed Dockside’s potential with a simple calculation: multiplying Dockside’s cost per unit of treatment capacity by the total treatment capacity the CRD needed. It decided that simple calculation was proof enough it would cost $2 billion to use distributed tertiary treatment.

    No one at the CRD has ever spoken with Regier. Perhaps someone should. He recently researched the costs of some 40 tertiary treatment facilities built in North America during the last 10 years, and adjusted their final costs so they could be compared with the estimated cost of McLoughlin Point’s treatment plant. He says, “Several tertiary treatment facilities with a wide range of capacities have unit costs in the same range [around $2 million per million litres per day of maximum sustained capacity] as the McLoughlin Point proposal, which provides only secondary treatment. These are existing plants so the costs are real and final—not class C estimates.”

    Let me give you a sense of what that cost translates to for Jensen’s municipality, Oak Bay. The CRD says Oak Bay would need treatment capacity to process about 12 million litres of sewage each day. Using Regier’s figures, that would cost $24 million. That’s just for the treatment plant and doesn’t include conveyancing or biosolids treatment. By comparison, Oak Bay’s share of the expected construction cost of a secondary plant at McLoughlin Point is about $14 million.

    Regier’s research shows that a 12-million-litre-per-day tertiary treatment plant would require a site area of about 4500 square metres, roughly equivalent to the area occupied by 6 tennis courts. Oak Bay’s Windsor Park, for instance, has three tennis courts at its west end that occupy roughly the area required to treat half the municipality’s sewage.

    There are two other large costs associated with sewage treatment for both the CRD’s McLoughlin secondary treatment scheme and distributed tertiary treatment: conveyancing (pumps and pipelines) and biosolids treatment—the process that reduces the solids the treatment plants take out of the sewage. The CRD’s McLoughlin plan would spend hundreds of millions on each. What about distributed tertiary?

    Again, let’s look at Jensen’s Oak Bay and use Windsor Park as an example. Right across Currie Road from the tennis courts, the CRD owns two residential properties that house a sewage pumping station disguised as single-family homes. To hook up a 12-million-litre-per-day underground tertiary plant that could treat the equivalent of Oak Bay’s daily production of sewage, the CRD would need to run two pipes under Currie Road; the current input to the Currie Road pumping station would become the input to the Currie Road café-bakery, er, sewage treatment plant, and the output from the plant would go back under the road and be pumped to the Clover Point outfall, exactly as is now.

    Oak Bay’s share of conveyancing construction costs in the McLoughlin scheme is about $4 million. That compares with an estimated cost of $500,000 to connect an underground Windsor Park treatment plant with the Currie pumping station. The extra cost of constructing tertiary treatment for Oak Bay is now less than $7 million above secondary treatment. For the 50-year life expectancy of these plants, that crunches down to an extra cost of $140,000 per year. That works out to $20 per Oak Bay household per year. Is that “too expensive”?

    The other big cost, biosolids treatment, would require either an on-site gasifier or a truck pulling into the café once a day to remove solids to a gasifier located where plenty of energy could be used. Saanich Councillor Vic Derman showed his fellow sewage committee directors years ago that using gasifiers instead of pumping everyone’s poop 18 kilometres to a biodigester at Hartland Road would save the CRD “$200 million plus $3-4 million in annual operating costs.” 

    Would it be possible to execute a systematic adaptation of distributed tertiary plants to the CRD’s existing system of forcemains and pumping stations—like that suggested above for the Currie Road pumping station? “Yes, I think so, at a number of locations along or near the trunk mains leading to Clover Point and Macaulay Point, including some of the pump stations,” Regier said.

    He described to me the differences between a system that utilized “independent” plants compared to one with “inter-related” plants and outlined how that might work. When I expressed difficulty in understanding what he meant, he said, “Think about a big picture puzzle. If you only have one or two pieces of the puzzle without the picture, you have no idea what you are dealing with. If you have most or all of the pieces, you can start sorting them out and get a much better idea of what the final result will look like.”

    So choosing actual locations for plants in a larger system is difficult until decisions have been made about how the larger system will work. Of course, when it comes to sewage treatment plants, no one—except the folks who live in Dockside Green—wants one built near them.

    Regier was cautious on this issue: “I hesitate to name specific sites because there will be an instant knee-jerk uproar and rejection without sober thought and analysis.” Pressed, though, he provided some possibilities: “Penrhyn, Currie and Marigold could be suitable for larger DT [distributed tertiary] plants; Trent for a smaller DT plant. Clover and Macaulay should probably have DT plants to serve the adjacent areas and possibly some backup/standby capability in case of failure at an upsteam DT plant, instead of pumping their sewage back up to a another DT. If the ‘westside’ develops something on their side then Craigflower might become redundant and it could be modified to pump reclaimed water to Central Saanich to irrigate a large agricultural area.”

    Even though these numbers suggests a distributed tertiary system could break the siting stalemate in which the region is now locked, there are two good reasons why CRD bureaucrats and local politicians don’t want to see a cost estimate for such a system.

    For one thing, CRD bureaucrats decided a distributed system would cost too much and then went on to spend over $85 million preparing for a central treatment plant. A study that demonstrates Regier’s distributed system would cost less would show that those bureaucrats screwed up. Why would they risk that? They could lose their jobs.

    For the politicians, there’s the problem of the “knee-jerk uproar.” Once a few possible locations are named—like Windsor Park in south Oak Bay or Clover Point in Victoria—only elected officials with great personal courage would be able to stand up to the blow-back. No one in either Saanich, Victoria or Oak Bay has yet shown they possess that courage.

    McLoughlinism depends on no politician having that courage. But to go ahead with a central plant at McLoughlin will likely mean a protracted legal battle between the CRD and Esquimalt, and taxpayers losing all promised senior government funding. The solution? Jensen ought to visit Café Fantastico and stroll through the water gardens.

    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.

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