Victoria residents worried as construction for $765M sewage plant begins

Odgen Point Breakwater in Victoria looks across the harbour to Esquimalt, the host municipality for a new wastewater treatment plant that will end the controversial practice of dumping raw sewage into the ocean. YAHOO CANADA/Showwei Chu

James Bay resident Deanne Loubardeas has been fretting about the sewage treatment plant project that’s getting underway just across Victoria harbour from her home.

Construction begins this month for the McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, a $765-million Capital Regional District (CRD) project that will serve Greater Victoria and end the controversial century-old practice of dumping untreated sewage into the ocean.

Residents of James Bay, like Loubardeas, now face months of drilling and trenching for sewer pipes that will connect a pump station to the plant across Victoria harbour. It has left residents feeling uncertain about the future of their community, uncertain of what the James Bay breezes will bring from the treatment facility a kilometre away in Esquimalt.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep and I’ve gnashed my teeth and chewed my wrists for weeks over this,” Loubardeas, a James Bay resident of nearly 18 years, tells Yahoo Canada News in a phone interview.

Other neighbours are also worried. When newcomer Ruth Abramson moved to Victoria for work and purchased a home in sought-after James Bay last spring, politicians were still debating on a location. She had no idea the new sewage plant might affect her.

Esquimalt was just one of many locations under consideration for the sewage facility. The Vancouver native bought her house not realizing that it could be built just across the harbour.

“I’m totally all for a sewage treatment plant,” says Abramson, in a phone interview. “I think it’s really important and I want one. I just didn’t want to live right by it.”

Marg Gardiner, president of James Bay Neighbourhood Association, says her community hasn’t gotten the same attention as Esquimalt and Fairfield even though it will bear the most impact of the project.

She’s also concerned about the environmental effects of trenching along parts of scenic Dallas Road, which she fears could greatly accelerate the deterioration of the bluffs.

A view of scenic Dallas Road in Victoria’s James Bay residential neighbourhood where sewer pipes will be installed to connect a pump station to the wastewater treatment plant across the Victoria harbour in Esquimalt. YAHOO CANADA/Showwei Chu

A done deal

To address the issue of sewage pollution in Canadian oceans and rivers, the federal government passed legislation in 2012 that requires municipalities and communities to provide at least secondary treatment of wastewater, which removes not only solid waste but also dissolved organic material.

Victoria, Vancouver and 11 other cities and communities have until the end of 2020 to comply with the federal law, while 17 wastewater systems and another 33 have until 2030 and 2040, according to Environment Canada. Municipalities that don’t meet their prescribed deadlines face charges and hefty fines.

There are three levels of wastewater treatment in Canada: primary, secondary and tertiary with the latter two removing a higher percentage of contaminants from the effluent before it’s released into the environment.

In 2016, Victoria discharged 32.9 billion litres of effluent or about 90.2 million litres a day from two long underwater pipes that run 60 metres below the ocean’s surface.

When the new tertiary treatment plant begins operations, it will process up to 108 million litres of wastewater a day — or about 39.4 billion litres a year — from the seven municipalities and two First Nations communities in Greater Victoria.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who was contacted for this story, has told residents of James Bay, Esquimalt and Fairfield that the city and the CRD will work to mitigate construction impacts.

In a comment piece on April 6, Jane Bird, the head of the provincially-appointed wastewater treatment project board, says “there will be no detectable odour in the surrounding community.”

The CRD hosted two information meetings this month and recently posted new information about noise and odour levels. Plant noise won’t exceed 35 decibels in Victoria, below the feared 60 decibels that a zoning bylaw permits. And modelling shows plant odour levels will be about 2 OUs (odour units), compared to the maximum allowable 5 OUs.

‘A huge milestone’

Getting to this construction phase is “a huge milestone” for the community, says Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, which advocates for sewage treatment.

“It is actually really phenomenal that this is finally happening,” she says.

Wilhelmson, who followed the sewage treatment plant’s journey for 15 years, says it is regrettable that it has taken decades and so much money in studies and consultants to get it done.

“There were a group of people in Victoria who firmly believed without a shadow of a doubt that dumping raw sewage into the ocean was perfectly reasonable, caused no harm and it was ridiculous to spend money on treating something that, according to them, nature treated on itself,” she says.

The B.C. government finally intervened last May by appointing a project board to make sure a plan was in place in September 2016 to qualify for provincial and federal funding.

The residents’ concerns about noise, odours and impacts of construction on the environment are valid. “If Victoria had built this system 50 years ago like they should have, we wouldn’t have to have these very difficult conversations,” Wilhelmson says.

“I hope eventually that this is no longer a subject that takes up so much energy in Victoria,” she says. “Victoria could turn its attention to other things about making that city and that region so wonderful.”