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Big Sewer Blockages

Victoria must now treat its sewage, but how?

Andrew MacLeod 7 Aug

Andrew MacLeod is the British Columbia legislative bureau chief for The Tyee. Since joining full time in 2007, his work has been referred to in the B.C. legislature, Canadian House of Commons and the Senate.

He is the author of All Together Healthy, which focuses on addressing the social determinants of health to build a more resilient Canada. His earlier book A Better Place on Earth is based on a series he wrote for The Tyee about economic inequality in B.C., and won the George Ryga Award for social awareness in literature.

He has also won a Jack Webster Award for excellence in business, industry, labour and economics reporting; and an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for news writing. Previously he was a staff writer for Monday Magazine in Victoria, which has been his home for more than three decades.

Find him on Twitter @A_MacLeod_Tyee, email him at or reach him by phone at (250) 885-7662.

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Victoria's Mr. Floatie and friends, from POOP.

On a sunny, windy afternoon, bull kelp bobs in the glinting waves off Macaulay Point, just west of Victoria's inner harbour. A woman in a red tank top labours up the path into the park. A family walking their dogs heads towards the military housing around the corner. A chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, protects a low, nondescript Capital Regional District building. If it weren't for the narrow "outfall" sign nearby, you'd never know a torrent of untreated sewage passes below and out to sea.

Nor would you know that this waterfront park is about to be at the centre of a complex debate. Late last month, B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner ordered the CRD to set a fixed schedule for introducing sewage treatment, and to have a plan in place by June 30, 2007. The move raises a huge range of questions, not the least of which is where to start building.

"Macaulay Point is the default location," says Jane Sterk, an Esquimalt councillor and former provincial Green party candidate. Sterk welcomes treatment but argues prime property next to the ocean isn't appropriate for a plant. The other obvious location is Clover Point, the site of Victoria's other existing outfall, across the road from million-dollar Fairfield homes on Dallas Road. If the people in middle-class Esquimalt raise a stink, it will smell relatively pleasant compared with the hue and cry likely to come from Fairfield.

The CRD's current plan, approved by the province in 2003, is for treatment plants at Macaulay and Clover points, says Dwayne Kalynchuk, the CRD's general manager of environmental services. At both sites, he says, plants would be buried. It would cost $250 million to make them both primary treatment, and $450 million to upgrade them to provide secondary treatment. A third site would be needed somewhere else to treat the sludge that would be trucked away from them.

Primary treatment, as defined in the July 12 Scientific and Technical Review: Capital Regional District Core Area Liquid Waste Management Plan, involves passing screened sewage through large tanks and allowing its various components to separate. Heavy material sinks to the bottom where it becomes sludge, while oils and other light elements rise to the surface where they can be skimmed off. That would reduce the amount of solids in Victoria wastewater by about 60 per cent.

Sewage pressure builds

Secondary treatment breaks down the sludge further. There are various ways to do it using micro-organisms. It's possible, says the report, to break the contaminants down to the point where they are virtually eliminated.

Already, pressure is building on the CRD to get beyond primary treatment. Tourism Victoria says secondary treatment is the minimum. The federal government, which is updating its wastewater guidelines, is widely expected to soon require at least secondary treatment.

The issue is also surfacing again in Vancouver. On August 2, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and two other groups launched a private legal action against the Greater Vancouver Regional District, alleging federal Fisheries Act violations by two facilities that provide only primary treatment. The objective is to force the GVRD to upgrade the plants.

Saanich councillor and former CRD chair Judy Brownoff says primary treatment in Victoria won't be enough. "Primary won't reduce those higher levels of contaminants from the sea floor," she says of copper, lead, zinc and other potential toxins. "I don't want to continue to create a contaminated site, because the cost of remediation could be very expensive for future generations."

Brownoff says she doesn't know yet what kind of treatment she'll support, but every possibility should be considered. "The options are bigger than just two big honking plants, which I don't think will work and I wouldn't support," she says. " I think you reach, and you use resource recovery to show the world how you can reduce greenhouse gases, recapture water and make energy."

But to do that, it becomes necessary to look beyond the CRD, its staff and the various municipal councils. The politicians are swimming hard to pop up on the right side of the tide now, but they are largely still coming to terms with having to move forward at all. Among the politicians, says Brownoff, "Quite honestly, nobody has been pushing a vision."

From stain to halo

Stephen Salter doesn't consider himself an expert on sewage, he says, but he is a mechanical engineer who has been working for several years with the Victoria Sewage Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labour groups, including the Georgia Strait Alliance, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation and the Victoria Labour Council.

Mr. Floatie, the scatological mascot of People Opposed to Outfall Pollution, may get credit for turning public opinion about sewage treatment, but Salter has been quietly effective in his own right. He says he spent a month analyzing CRD data to show the environment ministry that our sewage outfalls are creating contaminated sites. The ministry later confirmed his charge with its own study.

Now he wants to make sure we move forward in a way that gets beyond just cleaning up our effluent. Important as that is, he says, there are all kinds of opportunities to embrace here. "It's going to be a lot of money. Let's get the most environmental, social and economic benefit we can from this."

Even within the realm of "secondary" treatment, there are countless options. Does Victoria want to recover water, which will be in increasingly short supply? Membrane systems, like those used in San Diego, filter water that could be used for industrial purposes or to irrigate golf courses and parks, says Salter. "One day we'll be drinking it, because we'll be desperate," he adds.

The cost of such a membrane system would have to be balanced against the cost of finding more water sources in the future.

It's cheap and easy to recover cooking oil and grease, says Salter, and turn it into bio-diesel, which could be sold to help defray the expense. There's enough oil going out with our sewage to run 200 buses. Or you could use it in whale watching boats, something that would send a message to visitors and locals that we're doing things differently. "Suddenly our stain becomes our halo."

Another consideration is minimizing energy use. Traditional methods suck power to pump sewage from one place to another, then use even more to infuse oxygen into the mix. Would an anaerobic system, which doesn't require oxygen, use less energy? What about one that uses algae to break down the waste? Each of these is being used somewhere in the world, and could potentially be applied here.

And how much energy can the treatment process generate? If we use an anerobic method, the methane byproduct could be used to generate electricity. Vancouver does this at its Annacis Island wastewater treatment plant, and it's also done in Lethbridge. Salter says plants such as one in San Diego actually produce more energy than they use.

Lethbridge also uses cogeneration -- capturing the heat from a generator run on methane. Some facilities in Washington State and Japan use fuel cells that consume methane while generating both electricity and heat.

Warmth can also be removed from the sewage to heat buildings -- in Victoria's case, perhaps several thousand homes.

The processed sludge, says Salter, can be heated in a closed system with a process called pyrolysis, which breaks the molecules into smaller pieces and can be used to create either a gas or liquid fuel. When it's done, you are left with a glassy ash, he says, that can be refined in much the same way that ore is refined from a mine.

It's possible to remove minerals from the sludge. In Sweden, for example, the government requires sewage plants to remove at least 60 per cent of the phosphates, useful as fertilizer from their waste. "If you recover phosphorus you don't have to make phosphorus," says Salter. "It avoids upstream pollution."

In total, according to a table Salter prepared, about $1.3 million worth of metals go out with our sewage each year, including significant amounts of aluminum, magnesium, potassium, silver and zinc.

In the future, there will be even more possibilities for treating our sewage. How about a microbial fuel cell, like the one being developed at Pennsylvania State University, in which little critters give off electrons while they consume sewage? In one step, says Salter, they break down sewage and produce useable electricity. Whatever we plan, he says, we should leave room to improve on our system. "We'll be replacing it as it wears out. There's always going to be better to come."

Sewage plants for everyone!

Another question is whether to build one or two large plants, or a distributed system where smaller plants are spread around the region. The CRD review panel argued large plants offer economies of scale. Salter says we shouldn't overlook the possibility of creating small systems like the one going into the Dockside Green development.

When the Dockside Green development is completed next to the upper harbour, it will treat the sewage of some 2,500 residents on site. "There's this whole stigma of living next to a sewage plant," says Salter. "But people are signing up to live on top of one at Dockside."

The Dockside plan minimizes the water that residents use, reducing the amount that needs to be treated. "The [treated] water will be, after chlorination, virtually potable," says development manager Carola Bloedorn. "Though most people get queasy thinking about that."

The developer says the treated water will be used to flush toilets, for irrigation, to top up ponds, and possibly sold. Heat recovered from the treatment process will be used to warm the buildings. Using this system, says Bloedorn, 2,500 residents will create only a couple of garbage bags of sludge a week.

And residents will actually save more than what it costs to treat their sewage: They'll be making money on their waste.

"It is being done on a neighbourhood basis in India and China," says Salter, who believes there's no reason the model can't be expanded here.

The ideas Salter is talking about don't fit well into a debate over whether we should have primary, secondary or tertiary treatment. "It's actually kind of a lateral thinking approach altogether," he says.

Some options could be relatively cheap and easy; others will clearly be expensive. But those costs need to be considered against upstream benefits and unforeseen downstream harm. It's necessary, Salter says, to look at it holistically.

Turning knowledge into action

"Everyone's afraid of the cost and the stink," he says. "Let's get over the fear. Let's get inspired," Salter says. "We actually know how to solve the problem. We have had a leadership gap, and hopefully that's changing."

Salter and the sewage alliance are recommending the CRD employ a design competition that's open to all submissions. The suggestion is being echoed by Judy Brownoff. "I think we need to challenge the greater world. There's tons of stuff happening everywhere but here," Brownoff says. "I love the idea of using Mr. Floatie to power buses."

At the July 26 CRD liquid waste committee meeting, a motion to open such a competition was put forward, but it got tabled until after the committee members are briefed in August. The members also rejected a proposal from the regional staff to go back to Stantec Consulting Ltd. to update the plan they'd previously drawn up for sewage treatment, as well as to engage a public-private partnership consultant for advice.

Saanich mayor Frank Leonard was among those who want that briefing first. He also wants to digest the two reports, and get clarification on the province's intentions.

While some have characterized the move as stalling, Leonard says it's only wise to go slowly and make credible decisions. "Sometimes we have to figure things out in front of the public and reporters," he says. "If you make a decision that appears to be biased right at the start, you can never put Humpty Dumpty together again."

In the end, he says, an open, public process will result in a better decision with more support throughout the region. "If you do it right, it's actually faster. If you don't have credibility and you make decisions without people knowing something's being discussed, these things take longer."

No doubt it's worth getting right. Victoria has already created two contaminated sites, and Macaulay and Clover points are two beautiful waterfront parks that nobody wants to sacrifice. It's time to find a way to do the right thing.

Andrew MacLeod is a staff reporter for Victoria's Monday Magazine, where a version of this piece originally appeared.  [Tyee]

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