Cutting the crap in Victoria’s sewage debate

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Here in Victoria, the “City of Gardens,” we take pride in our spectacular natural surroundings and our environmental consciousness. It therefore comes as a disgraceful embarrassment to most that such a self-proclaimed “green” city would be spewing raw, untreated sewage into our beloved coastal waters.

Approximately 1 500 litres per second of raw Victoria waste is pumped out of two deep-ocean outfalls, just over a kilometre from the shore. Approximately 130 million litres a day are flushed out the pipes, enough to fill 52 stinking Olympic-sized swimming pools. This reckless expulsion of sewage has prompted demands to build multiple sewage treatment plants throughout Victoria, a plan approved by the B.C. Minister of Environment in August 2010. The science behind this decision, however, is not as clear as you may think.

The fuss over poop

Sewage has become a subject of increasing concern, because sewage in the ocean tends to trigger blooms of algae—a process known as eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs when large volumes of nutrients are added to water bodies. These nutrients act as fertilizer for phytoplankton, which are microscopic photosynthetic plants in the top layer of nearly all bodies of water. When phytoplankton eventually die, they sink and are decomposed by bacteria at the bottom of the body of water. As these bacteria work, they consume oxygen, ultimately causing the development and spread of “dead zones”—areas where the dissolved oxygen levels are too low to support life.

In regions where human waste is emptied into an enclosed body of water, sewage treatment has been highly effective in preventing eutrophication and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Scientific evidence, however, suggests that the current system is not only economically favourable, but also more environmentally sound for our area.

Why fix what isn’t broken?

Scientists from the University of Victoria, the Institute of Ocean Sciences, and those hired by the Capital Regional District (CRD) have been monitoring the outfalls at Macaulay and Clover Point since the 1970s. Their research indicates that the impacts of sewage outflow on the communities of organisms that live on the ocean floor have been relatively minor and limited to within 100 metres of where the sewage goes out. Also, no evidence of oxygen depletion in these systems has surfaced, suggesting that fears of a dead zone may be unfounded.

The net current carries virtually all dissolved sewage effluent out into the Pacific Ocean, due to the incredible volume of fresh river water flowing into the Georgia and Puget basins. The resulting dilution of nutrients in the open ocean precludes eutrophication. Additionally, shoreline monitoring and ocean water surveys have clearly demonstrated that the ocean outfalls have no role in beach contamination. Instead, stormwater discharges have been identified as the true culprits.

The trouble with treatment

A treatment plant raises many serious issues. Someone has to run the thing. While this would create a few jobs, treatment plants pose health hazards to workers, exposing them to many types of micro-organisms and chemicals. A higher prevalence of respiratory disease, fatigue, and headaches may be reported by sewage plant employees, relative to control groups. Sewage plant employees also suffer increased incidence of gastrointestinal tract symptoms, as well as greater risk of infection, especially of hepatitis A.

Then, the waste would need to be transported across town by pipeline, to a sludge disposal facility. The CRD has expressed interest in two sites: one on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt and the other near the Hartland landfill. Both communities, however, have voiced strong opposition to the construction of this facility in their municipalities. The final method of sludge disposal has yet to be determined. Dealing with the risks of soil- and water-contamination is a whole other can of worms.

Notwithstanding the environmental impacts of a treatment plant (and there are many!), the scientific evidence suggests that the implementation of this $783-million plan will not benefit the marine ecosystem adjacent the outfall pipes. Taking these potential consequences into consideration, the benefits of this project simply do not outweigh the costs. In an era of constant cutbacks to environmental projects across the country, this money should be directed elsewhere.