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Doc Dares to Defy Mr. Floatie

Victoria's medical chief: treat people, not sewage.

By Barbara McLintock 14 Nov 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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As a general rule, municipal election campaigns all sound the same. A computer program with well-written, drop-down menus could probably produce 90 percent of the speeches that will be given at all-candidates meetings across British Columbia this month. Just about every candidate wants to be seen as being in favour of community safety, affordable housing, better infrastructure and no increases in property taxes. They would also like the voters to believe they are in favour of "balanced and sustainable development" - it's up to the voters to read between the lines to figure out whether that means turning every acre of a municipality into blacktop and high rises, or whether it means actually reducing the total number of housing units allowed within the municipal boundaries.

Thus, it is particularly noteworthy that the municipal battle in B.C.'s capital, Victoria, has turned into a genuine debate about the values that are most important to its citizens, about the priorities that should be set for the spending of scarce tax dollars and about the criteria that should be used in making policy decisions. It is even more noteworthy because one of the prime movers of the debate is not even a candidate for elected office.

The issue around which city residents have begun to hold this debate is that of sewage treatment for Greater Victoria's waste. And the person who pushed the debate forward is not an elected official, but Dr. Richard Stanwick, the Chief Medical Health Officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Mr. Floatie for mayor?

The issue of sewage treatment has long been a contentious one in Greater Victoria. The provincial capital is the only major city in Canada that does not provide some type of man-made formal treatment of its sewage. Instead, the sewage goes through a fine-mesh screen to remove any large solids and then is pumped directly out through two long 1.6-km outfall pipes into the ocean. Supporters of the system explain that Victoria is blessed with particularly strong, cold-water ocean currents in the vicinity of the outfalls, which allows the sewage to dissipate with very little effect on the environment. They cite numerous scientific studies which reinforce this position.

But the practice is opposed by environmental groups - and by many Washington state residents who have the perception that Victoria's untreated sewage could easily drift south into the waters of Puget Sound and nearby areas. They argue that the studies don't take the whole picture into account and that the precautionary principle should be used, meaning that sewage should be treated until it can be definitively determined that dumping it into the ocean untreated will not cause environmental damage.

Public opinion appeared in Victoria to be swinging in favour of sewage treatment. Indeed, a candidate named "Mr. Floatie" almost appeared on the mayoralty ballot for the city. "Mr. Floatie" goes about town in a fuzzy brown costume, designed to look like a piece of poop, to raise awareness of the issue. But when city officials said he had to run under his own name on the ballot, not that of Mr. Floatie, erstwhile candidate James Skworak pulled out of the race.

By the time he'd done so, though, both of the leading mayoralty candidates had come out in favour of sewage treatment. Incumbent Mayor Alan Lowe, a strong favourite to win a second term, stated he'd be lobbying the senior levels of government for money to build a secondary treatment plant. His chief rival, Ben Isitt, of the Victoria Civic Electors (the city's municipal arm of the New Democrats) went further and said he thought tertiary treatment should be required.

Negligible benefit

Enter Dr. Stanwick. The Capital Regional District Board asked him to prepare a report for them on the risks to human health from the current disposal system. The report was to aid the elected officials in their struggles to decide whether to press forward with a plan for treatment.

Dr. Stanwick came to a clear and definitive opinion. From the point of view of human health, he wrote, investing in secondary sewage treatment would provide a negligible benefit to the residents of Greater Victoria. He stressed it was not his mandate to look at broader environmental issues nor at the tricky question of public perception. But viewed through a human health lens, secondary treatment simply is not needed at the moment in the Greater Victoria area.

However, Dr. Stanwick went further. He looked at the costs of building the sewage treatment plant and running it each year and then considered what other health benefits could be achieved by spending the same amount of money. The numbers were staggering. Using the CRD's own figures, he concluded that secondary treatment would cost $447 million plus $16.7 million a year in operating costs. That would result in an additional annual cost of $573 per CRD household.

Those sums, he said, would be enough to meet the capital requirements of the health care system for the next decade. It would cover the costs of a new badly-needed patient-care tower at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. It would provide the funds for a sufficient number of long-term and extended care hospital beds to meet the needs of the region's seniors. Those benefits, Dr. Stanwick pointed out, are tangible, well-documented and unquestionably needed in the region.

Choose your future

So has begun the debate on the best way to look at the sewage treatment issue. For the first time, residents are being invited to compare proposals:

Would you like your tax dollars to pay for sewage treatment, or for a guaranteed long-term care bed for your grandmother?

How much should decisions about such issues be made on the basis of political optics (because there's no question is does make Victoria look bad to still be dumping that untreated sewage out there) or on the basis of hard scientific evidence?

And if you choose hard scientific evidence, how wide a net should be cast in gathering that evidence?

Should you just look at the immediate impact on human and/or marine health, or should you be trying to project years, decades, or even centuries into the future to try to speculate on what impact that sewage might be having?

Citizens are entering the discussions with enthusiasm. The letters to the editor pages of the local newspapers are full of correspondence, both those agreeing with Dr. Stanwick, and those insisting he is taking much too narrow a view of the issue.

He may not be running for office, but he has turned the Victoria election campaign into something important and tangible. No matter what the final outcome, for that, we should all be grateful.

Barbara McLintock is a contributing editor to The Tyee based in Victoria.  [Tyee]

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