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Dirty Water and Good Intentions: The Murky Case for Victoria Sewage Treatment

Scientific argument for $1-billion project is far from watertight.

By Michael Ruffolo 24 Aug 2016 |

Michael Ruffolo is a freelance journalist and student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism who is completing a practicum at The Tyee. He has a biology degree from the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @mike_ruffolo.

After 10 years of political battles, bureaucracy and conflicting claims, British Columbia’s capital is finally being pushed into treating the 130 million litres of sewage it dumps into the ocean each day.

But a decade after the provincial government ordered treatment, and four years after new federal regulations required secondary treatment to be in place by 2020, some critics claim the whole $1-billion-plus project is a waste of money. Treatment simply isn’t needed, opponents maintain.

A debate about costs and battles about location of plants are expected. But the main question — whether treatment is needed — should be a simple matter of science.

Does the sewage and wastewater released into the Juan de Fuca Strait create significant environmental damage? If so, treat it. If not, why worry?

So why, after all this time, is the science still hotly disputed?

Partly, there’s an expectation that sewage will be treated. Victoria is the only major city north of San Diego that pumps its waste into the ocean. There has to be a reason all those other communities have chosen treatment, right?

My field is biology. That’s what I studied in university. But my first reaction to learning the province’s capital flushed its waste into the ocean was more visceral than scientific. I let out an audible “Eww” when I found out what was being released into the water off Victoria’s coast.

The idea of everything you flush down the toilet going straight into the water where people swim or fish is disgusting, even without considering the environmental impact.

But as I waded deeper into the scientific waters around sewage treatment, my convictions began to soften.

The Juan de Fuca factor

The big argument against treatment is based on what happens to the wastewater once it enters the ocean.

The fear is that the effluent is damaging the waters around Victoria, killing wildlife and harming the ecosystem.

Treatment has been talked about for at least 50 years. But the current push to deal with the issue was sparked by a study published in July 2006. The Capital Regional District commissioned a report by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The 125-page report noted Victoria was one of the only coastal communities to flush screened sewage into the ocean. It was hardly definitive, but the report did find sewage was contaminating the seabed near the two pipes that dumped the wastewater. Sewage plumes that sometimes rose to the ocean’s surface were health risks, the panel added.

And, the report concluded, “prudent public policy” called for treatment.

That set the stage for pro-treatment campaigns. Mr. Floatie — a costumed pro-treatment mascot — started showing up at public events.

But a lot of research suggests the concerns are misplaced.

The capital region’s sewage enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a 150-kilometre-long outlet to the Pacific Ocean for the Salish Sea. The strait is much shallower and its currents much faster than the Georgia Strait to its north.

And that, researchers say, is important in considering the impact of sewage from the capital.

Richard Pawlowicz, a University of British Columbia professor and expert on physical oceanography, says that in the Juan de Fuca Strait “we have these huge [currents] going this way and this way, and a lot of mixing going on... you put something [in] and immediately it will spread out over a large area.”

In the Georgia Strait, he said, anything put into the water will stay for much longer and be less dispersed by tides and currents. Particles introduced in the strait can stay for six months or much longer. So treatment for Vancouver’s sewage is absolutely required.

But Pawlowicz, who researches flow rates in the Salish Sea, found particles entering the Juan de Fuca Strait at deep levels are expelled into the Pacific Ocean within 16 to 21 days.

The capital region’s wastewater is discharged into the strait from two long underwater pipes. Almost all the effluent is gone after just 21 days.

I had been picturing fluorescent green sludge pouring from a rusty pipe and little fishies surfacing belly up. But the outfalls are more than one kilometre offshore and at least 50 metres below the surface, where the sewage is immediately swept away by the fast currents and diluted to very low levels.

Victoria’s location provides a natural great flushing that disperses the sewage in the Pacific. And Pawlowicz believes this is why the region does not need sewage treatment.

“The flow rates are higher, there is a lot more mixing, the tides are racing back and forth — but also, you have this huge outflow of water going out into the Pacific,” he said. “So if you drop something in here, it very quickly spreads out. The dilution factor is very high.”

As part of their research, Pawlowicz and his team drop tracking devices into the Salish Sea. The ones dropped into the Juan de Fuca Strait show a predictable linear path out into the Pacific Ocean — while the devices off the coast of Vancouver float around and rarely drift southward.

It’s the same for sewage from the capital region — the effluent gets swept up by the fast moving currents and is shot off to the Pacific.

Will treatment improve the sewage quality?

OK, I began to accept that the powerful currents in the Juan de Fuca Strait provide enough turbulence and discharge to disperse any effluent that enters. But I was still wondering.... Why not just treat the sewage anyway? Instead of dumping 130 million litres of sewage, why not dump 130 million litres of treated sewage? Surely it will be better for the environment?

The Capital Regional District’s water quality report from 2014 should help answer that question.

The report lists all contaminants that exceed government standards at the outfalls at Macaulay and Clover points. It reports that 12 items exceed guidelines.

By the time the effluent has spread beyond the initial dilution zone — an area of 100 metres around each outfall — only the bacteria (fecal coliform and Enterococci) remain above government standards. The 10 other substances all drop below the threshold 100 metres from the dumping site. Effects on aquatic life are limited to that small area.

So damage is limited to the initial dilution zone — the IDZ, as they say in the sewage world.

Great — though I still wondered why should there be any damage. I had been envisioning huge patches of discoloured water and poisoned oceans. But when I saw how small the affected zones are in comparison to the massive strait, I began wondering if there really should be cause for concern.

By the time the wastewater made it to the edge of those two tiny areas, almost everything in the water meets government standards for safety. Only bacterial content remains above standards. But the Capital Regional District, responsible for the sewage project, states that treatment won’t reduce bacteria to the levels set in the water quality guidelines.

“The bacteriological indicator WQG [Water Quality Guideline] exceedences will continue even after the installation of treatment, but the magnitude of the exceedences will decrease substantially.”

Since the report was written in 2014, the district has discussed using disinfectants in the treatment facility to lower the bacteria levels, but no decision has been made.

Without disinfectants, bacteria — the only contaminants that exceed water quality standards now — will continue to exceed the guidelines.

But what about the wider impact?

I was still curious why most of the water quality tests were done within the small immediate dispersion zone. What if there was a pocket of water a few kilometres offshore that retained all the contaminants?

Chris Lowe works for the Capital Regional District’s environmental sustainability department, and he and his team collect samples from the sewage outfalls.

“The reason we don’t do more water column testing further away is because it dilutes so quickly, and we wouldn’t detect anything that we would measure,” he said. “Everything is diluted to a very low level.”

What about potential risks for swimmers, I ask?

“If swimmers were to swim in the water off the outfall, deeper than 40 metres, there is potential for exposure to high levels of bacteria,” Lowe says.

And do they, I ask?

“You mean a kilometre offshore and 50 metres deep?” Lowe responds. “No.”

Lowe wouldn’t comment on his personal views on treatment. “It’s receiving-environments dependent, and I won’t say anything beyond that,” he said. “Some locations are more suitable for diluting sewage than others.”

Contaminants aren’t the only potential problem. All the organic matter that’s pumped into the Juan de Fuca Strait eventually breaks down, and when this happens oxygen is consumed. Large amounts of untreated wastewater can cause too much oxygen to be used up, leading to what’s known as an anoxic environment — an area with very little oxygen. Seeing as most organisms need oxygen to live, that’s not a good scenario.

But Lowe says graduate students at the University of Victoria have been researching the effect of sewage on oxygen levels.

“They have a study with Ocean [Networks] Canada at the Macaulay Point outfall which is continuously monitoring oxygen,” he said. “After the approximate two years of data we have, there is no data to suggest that the outfalls affect oxygen levels.”

Then there’s the precautionary principle

Not every scientist I spoke with was OK with what is going on off the shores of Victoria.

Peter Ross, director of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium, agrees with some of the arguments from project critics, but believes we still need to treat the water.

“I recognize that there is a lack of scientific evidence that would say that ‘it’s really imperative for Victoria’ because it’s killing fish or whales. That evidence is fairly sparse,” he said. “But are we looking? If you’re trying to do the precautionary thing, reducing the potential for impact, if that’s your goal, then there is no question that upgraded sewage treatment is the way to go.”

It strikes me as a good point. The precautionary principle provides extra protection, recognizing the gaps in our knowledge. Only in the last seven years, for example, have researchers discovered microplastics, tiny plastic particles found in cosmetics, clothing and other goods. The particles are ingested and accumulate in greater quantities in organisms as they go up the food chain, in a process called bioaccumulation. They also comprise the bulk of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Until recently, we had no idea these tiny compounds existed and were unaware of their environmental impact. Ross says if we had even basic water treatment, we would have been able to test the effluent sludge, notice the microplastics and ban them years before they developed into a major problem.

Prevention rather than treatment

Evgeny Pakhomov, director of the UBC Institute for Oceans and Fisheries, says secondary treatment is not enough if you want to get rid of all the contaminants in the water.

Bacterial colonies are not expected to drop even with treatment, and Pakhomov says that to get rid of heavy metals and pharmaceuticals you need treatment beyond the tertiary level — and this comes with a hefty price.

“If we want to reduce the trace metals, that will cost lots of money,” he says. “It can be done, but it will cost lots of money.”

Pakhomov believes that the proposed secondary treatment plants will have little effect on water quality and that it would be wiser to focus efforts on prevention.

“When I teach marine pollution, I teach that prevention was our biggest innovation,” he says. “Prevention is always better, it’s cheaper, it’s always cheaper.”

Instead of treating the wastewater, he said, it’s more effective to focus on reducing the amount of contaminants we put in the water in the first place. We’ve done this before with things like PCBs and pesticides like DDT — instead of treating them, we stopped manufacturing them all together.

The CRD already has preventive measures to prevent contamination. The regional source control program aims to reduce “the amount of contaminants that industry, businesses, institutions and households discharge into the district’s sanitary sewer systems.” A specific medication return program provides a way for residents to dispose of unused medication. In 2015, the program collected 11,306 kilograms of unwanted medication.

So, the bottom line — treat, or not?

Victoria doesn’t really have a choice. The federal government has ordered the capital to have treatment in place by 2020.

Ultimately, the reason for going ahead with the treatment plants may be more of an ethical one than a scientific one. We just think dumping sewage into the ocean is disgusting and feel icky knowing it’s going on, regardless of what is happening in the ocean.

Pawlowicz sees it differently. “You’re thinking, ‘What’s going into the ocean?’ But the other part of it is, what is the ocean doing to this all?”

I entered this story completely on the side of treatment. I imagined horrible images of large pipes jutting out of cliffs and glowing goo flowing into the ocean. Almost everyone who learns that there is a straight line from the region’s toilets to the ocean responds with the same disgusted look.

Treatment certainly won’t harm the ocean ecosystem. Neither will it remove all the chemicals. But it may be the safest option. Especially if it helps us detect future problems that we are currently unaware of, like microplastics.

There is a constant struggle between how much we are willing to give up and how much we are willing to damage the environment for our convenience and luxuries. We know that the current treatment plants are going to cost taxpayers $1 billion or more. And the evidence indicates that secondary treatment may have little real environmental benefit.

Treating the water to the tertiary level or beyond would make the sewage cleaner, but the process will also be far more costly.

Are citizens willing to pay $1 billion for secondary treatment? Or three or four times as much for even better treatment? All so that we can feel secure knowing that the water pumped into the ocean is “clean”? Or is the current approach good enough?

Peter Ross believes that the cost of treatment is a small price to pay for a clean environment.

“To me, it’s a no brainer,” he said. “I would be writing a cheque to the City of Victoria as part of my property tax. There are seven billion people on the planet, the oceans are under tremendous threat, as everyone keeps talking about. Yet if they’re so worried about the fate of the oceans and the planet, why are we blinding ourselves to our own roles and responsibilities as individual citizens?”

Perhaps we should consider the cost of treatment as the price of a clean conscience.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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