Sewage treatment may cause rent to rise

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UVic students may face rent hikes in the region of $50–$100 per month if Victoria’s new sewage treatment system goes ahead warns a local activist group.

The Association for Responsible and Environmentally Sustainable Sewage Treatment (ARESST) has launched a petition to stop the Core Area Wastewater Treatment Program (CAWTP) from being implemented. The petition was sparked in July when federal and provincial governments pledged $253.4-million and $248 million respectively towards CAWTP. The remainder of the $782.7 million project will be covered by the Capital Regional District (CRD), which means Victoria citizens will foot a $281.3 million bill — if the project stays on budget. 

Esquimalt Councillor Dave Hodgins says that, over- or on-budget, the price is too high.

“It’s all our tax dollars,” says Hodgins, a member of ARESST. “It’s our money. It’s not that all of a sudden we’ve come across this pot of money from somewhere. It’s our money that’s being put into this senseless, needless project.”

The CRD estimates that taxes in Victoria will rise by $250–$500 per household in order to pay for the CAWTP, but ARESST says this figure will more likely work out to $500–$800 once cost overruns arise. The governments’ contributions are fixed and will not increase even if the CAWTP goes over budget. Budget overruns are highly likely says ARESST spokesperson Elizabeth Woodworth, pointing out that the project was originally estimated at $1 billion but was then scaled back to just under $800 million. 

Students who rent suites or apartments may have the bulk of those taxes passed on to them, says Woodworth. She adds that, because many students only rent their suites for eight months of the year, landlords might be inclined to divide the $500–$800 cost over that time frame.

CRD concedes rent rises are likely 

If tax increases stay within the CRD’s budget of $250–$500 per household and are passed on to renters over a 12-month period, students may still face rent rises of $20–$40. Although the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch says landlords can only raise rent by a maximum of 4.3 per cent per year, landlords can apply for an additional rent increase if they have “incurred a financial loss from an extraordinary increase in the operating expenses of the residential property.” Higher taxes due to sewage treatment may constitute just that.

Even those who live in UVic residence housing may not be immune to the increase.

“There’s no getting away from it: the operating costs of the university-operated housing will go up, and I would assume that that would have to be passed on to student residents,” says CRD chair Geoff Young. “For those who rent in private houses, the monthly bills of the owners and landlords are going to go up, and I guess they will have to make decisions about how they want to pass them on to their tenants.”

The core area municipalities of Colwood, Esquimalt, Langford, Oak Bay, Saanich (where UVic is situated), Victoria and View Royal will all use and pay for the CAWTP. In addition, the Beecher Bay, Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations have signed agreements with the CRD to utilize the CAWTP. Each municipality must decide how its citizens will pay. Increased property taxes are one option, though a per-household volumetric charge based on water usage seems more likely and, to many, more fair. 

Young says this is the price of environmental progress, and is inevitable. He draws a comparison to the fact that Victoria used to dump garbage in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Currently, 130 million litres of sewage effluent are pumped into the Strait every day. Finding alternative means of garbage disposal was necessary, despite the cost, and Young says the same is true of sewage. 

“Mostly the cheapest way to get rid of stuff is to throw it away, whether you throw it in the ocean or throw it in a hole in the ground. As you try to get rid of stuff in a better way by reusing it and separating out the harmful components, there is a cost,” he says.

Environmental merits of the CAWTP contested 

ARESST disagrees not only with the cost of the CAWTP, but also with the environmental benefits the CRD says it will provide.

“A lot of people don’t realize what the present system does,” says Chris Garrett, a recently retired professor in UVic’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

Garrett says that CRD sewage runs into two pumping stations: one at Clover Point and one at Macaulay Point. What he describes as “nasty-looking stuff” sticks to rotating screens with six-millimetre holes (“the size of a pea”). The detritus is scraped off the screens, compacted and taken to a landfill, and the water is pumped out more than a kilometre into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where it is swept away by rapid currents.

“What gets pumped out to the ocean is admittedly very smelly, but still a very thin, grey soup,” says Garrett of the existing system, which is known as “preliminary treatment.”

He says the CRD has done an excellent job with source control by encouraging people like mechanics and dentists to remove harmful substances at their businesses with their own settling tanks, so many harmful chemicals never get into the wastewater to begin with.

“Spending hundreds of millions on a land-based secondary treatment plant is a low priority for marine environment protection,” says Garrett. 

But land-based sewage treatment — or “secondary treatment” — is what the CRD says it needs in order to comply with both provincial and federal government regulations for sewage treatment by 2020. Secondary treatment removes more harmful substances from effluent, including bacteria.

ARESST says that secondary treatment, which will require the construction of new sewage pipes, a treatment plant in Esquimalt, new underground tanks and a second biosolids plant at the Hartland Landfill, does not have any demonstrable benefits for human health or for marine life in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. ARESST believes the construction and operation of the CAWTP will create a more substantial environmental footprint than the current system.

“There is no net health benefit to an on-land, artificial, secondary treatment plant. In fact, there are greater health risks,” says David Anderson, the honorary president of ARESST. Anderson was Victoria’s MP for 13 years, and has also worked as both the federal minister of the Environment and the minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

Anderson says the Strait of Juan de Fuca presents a unique natural system that can handle preliminarily treated sewage because of the high volume of oxygenated water that moves through it. He says a reliance on artificial systems even when natural ones will do is a “human tendency” he’s often witnessed during his time in politics.

What’s next? 

Young says the CRD has conducted sufficient studies to determine that secondary treatment is the right choice.

 “We have done a lot of work on the existing system and what the impacts are, and we have done and are doing baseline studies to determine what the impact of the new plant will be,” says Young.

An Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the effects the CAWTP will have on land was completed in June 2010. It found that “the environmental and community impacts resulting from construction and operation of treatment and ancillary facilities can be effectively mitigated.”  The second page of the report states that, “An EIS of the marine outfall and effluent discharge will be prepared and submitted when studies are completed in mid-2011.” The CRD says this EIS is behind schedule and should be completed by the end of the year.

When asked if the CRD had done a study to compare the environmental impacts of the existing system to the proposed one, Jack Hull, the CRD’s general manager of integrated water services, said no.

“In terms of a detailed study comparing, no. That issue went away when we were ordered to provide secondary sewage treatment. The issue was not up for debate at that point. It was complying with the order, and that’s what we’re doing,” says Hull.

ARESST wants the CRD to apply for an exemption from the government order, but Hull says the CRD has no intention of submitting such a request. Anderson says that, although secondary treatment plants are appropriate when natural conditions can’t handle the sewage, the CAWTP is not appropriate for Victoria.

“Quebec City gets far more snow than here every winter,” says Anderson. “If the federal government came down and said that Victoria . . . was going to have to have the same expenditure on snow removal equipment as Quebec City, people would say that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t suit local conditions. With sewage treatment it’s the same thing. What suits local conditions?” 

ARESST will hold a town hall meeting about the CAWTP on Wednesday, Oct. 3 @7:30 p.m. in St. Ann’s Academy (835 Humboldt St.). Visit aresst.ca for more information.

The CRD will hold its next Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee meeting on Monday, Oct. 10 @9:30 a.m. at the CRD offices (625 Fisgard St.). Check out their website, wastewatermadeclear.ca, for more information. 

*Correction: This story was originally published with an incorrect website address (“arrest.ca”). The correct website address is aresst.ca. The article was updated on Sept. 6.

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