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Sewage Ads: Something Smells

Anti-union, pro-P3 campaign raises questions about backers.

Russ Francis 4 Jul

Russ Francis is a Victoria-based political reporter.

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MLA Rob Fleming: Against P3.

A series of display advertisements attacking "CUPE union bosses" has people scratching their heads about who is funding it.

At stake is the Capital Regional District's (CRD) $1.2 billion sewage treatment project, one of the largest publicly-funded projects in B.C.'s history.

The ads, which appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist, attack officials at the Canadian Union of Public Employees for "putting an activist political agenda ahead of practical solutions."

Placed by Sewage Solutions Now, a previously unheard-of organization, the ads, and the organization's website, urge Victorians not to accept CUPE's strong preference for the project to be publicly-owned.

"CUPE union bosses should set politics aside and make the environment the priority!" suggests the ad, in bold-faced type.

"CUPE stands in the way," according to the website. "Their union bosses crusade against anything except an expensive government-only solution."

The organization wants the project to be a public-private partnership (P3).

CUPE spokesman Justin Schmidt told the Tyee that the ads seem like a "throwback to the Socred days."

"This is really not making a constructive addition to the debate," he says, adding that the ad campaign has raised eyebrows as to the source of Sewage Solutions Now's funding.

One could imagine the organization and its expensive ads being funded by someone like Partnerships BC, the Crown corporation handed the task of promoting public-private partnerships. But spokeswoman Jennifer Davies says there is no relationship -- "no connections whatsoever."

A suspicious mind might also imagine that one of the big private players in sewage treatment P3s is behind the campaign. For instance Epcor, the Edmonton-based company that is likely near the head of the pack in picking up the CRD deal, would love for the project to be done as a P3.

It's not us, says Epcor spokesman Jay Shukin. The company "did not participate" in developing the campaign, he writes in an e-mail this week.

"We support a vigorous public dialogue about how the CRD's wastewater project should be designed -- but our focus is on speaking directly and openly with stakeholders in the CRD about how best to meet the community's needs," Shukin says.

Dwayne Kalynchuk, the CRD's environmental services manager, told the Tyee he has no idea who is behind the organization.

One of those pushing for the project to be publicly owned is New Democrat MLA Rob Fleming, who last month presented a 2,500-name petition to the legislature, calling for just that.

Asked about Sewage Solutions Now, Fleming says he's not sure who is funding the organization.

Fleming says that this project, in particular, would cost more as a P3, because it is capital-intensive, and governments can borrow at interest rates that are about four percentage points less than can the private sector: "That's where the money is -- it's in the repayment."

He says that the provincial government is pulling out all the stops to make the project a P3: "Local taxpayers who are going to be on the hook here for the debt-servicing of this project need to be aware of the consequences of making it a P3."

So who is behind Sewage Solutions Now?

Until now, the only person publicly identified with it is the organization's spokesman, public affairs consultant George Gibault. Speaking in an interview, he says that supporters do not include anyone associated with Partnerships BC or with any company that might have an interest in the project.

Gibault adds that consultant and former Green Party member Bernard Schulmann is involved, as is former federal Canadian Alliance candidate Bruce Hallsor, and former Conservative Party of Canada, Saanich-Gulf Islands riding association president Robert Blazek.

The trio have agreed to write letters to the editor in support of the organization, Gibault says.

In an interview, Schulmann says that to dismiss the P3 option for the sewage project out of hand is "foolhardy," and that if a P3 is properly administered it can save taxpayers money.

On its website, Sewage Solutions Now includes links to a number of organizations, including the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, which protects fish and fish habitat, and the Georgia Strait Alliance, which works to protect and restore the marine environment.

Neither has anything to do with Sewage Solutions Now, and neither was asked ahead of time for permission to include the links.

T. Buck Suzuki clean water director Jim McIsaac says that his foundation stays away from any political issues, such as whether the project should be a P3.

"We want to see an open and transparent process, and we want the best deal for the community in the long term," he says.

Similarly, Alliance clean air and water program coordinator Christianne Wilhelmson says her organization has no position on the kind of project it should be: "That's up to the community to decide."

Sewage Solutions Now's domain registration provides no information about those behind the organization. Its domain name was registered last May 15 to a Toronto-based web-hosting company, Netfirms Inc.

Then there's the issue of the origin of Sewage Solutions Now's press release, issued May 24. Where did it come from?

According to the "document properties" in the Word-version of the release sent out by Gibault, it was written by David Israelson, a former Toronto Star reporter who is now a partner at prominent Toronto public relations company Media Profile Inc. Media Profile's name is included amongst the release's properties.

Asked about Media Profile's apparent involvement, Gibault hesitates for some time, before saying: "You have to speak to them."

But in an interview, Israelson -- who has previously worked for environmental organizations, and who recently picked up a contract from the City of Edmonton -- says he knows nothing about Sewage Solutions Now.

"I've never heard of them," he says in an interview. "I don't have any connection to them at all."

He could not explain why his name and that of his company appear among the document's properties.

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