IN this age of environmental sensitivity, the way Greater Victoria, B.C., disposes of its sewage is astounding. It runs a couple of pipes out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and flushes.
Everything gets mushed through a screen to make sure nothing recognizably icky floats to the surface, but that’s the extent of the sewage treatment for the southern end of Vancouver Island, home to about 300,000 people. Now, a decades-long effort to build a sewage-treatment plant is blocked by a local-government zoning squabble. It’s time for the grown-ups to say “enough already.”
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark needs to cut through the procedural baloney and order the plant’s construction. And to make sure that happens, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, sometimes hailed as the nation’s “greenest governor,” must elevate the matter to the level of international scandal, just as former Gov. Chris Gregoire did years ago as director of the state Department of Ecology.
Victoria’s approach to sewage treatment is as unthinkable as serving spotted-owl burgers at curling matches. Imagine: Every hour, Victoria and its environs pump a million gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca opposite Port Angeles.
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In Washington, that might be considered an environmental crime. Officials here fret about every flush — they are proposing regulations that would make it illegal for commercial and recreational vessels to release treated waste into the sound. And federal regulators are pressuring the state into adopting standards for wastewater plants so tough they can’t be met with today’s technology.
All this while the Victoria area uses our shared waters as a great big toilet bowl.
Twenty years ago, Washington lawmakers called for a tourism boycott and Victoria’s unofficial mascot became a brown-suited gent who calls himself Mr. Floatie. Pressure from this state and the provincial government finally produced a plan to bring a sewage-treatment plant online by 2018. Down here, the furor died away. Except that two months ago the Esquimalt City Council refused to issue a permit for the new $721 million (U.S. dollars) facility. The provincial environment minister refused to overrule the town. Now years of planning might go down the drain.
The local planning authority, the Capital Regional District, will debate its next move at a meeting this week. But a staff analysis concludes the agency has no cost-effective options.
Blame it on a 21st century respect for process, combined with a 1950s respect for the environment. Some islanders say big new sewer taxes are unneeded because poop dissolves in the ocean the way nature intended. Yes, Victorians think we’re the ones being Victorian. We really don’t know how badly they are mucking American waters — no studies have measured Victoria’s direct contribution to the problems we see in the Sound.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s disgusting. No other metropolitan area in the developed world dumps untreated sewage in the ocean anymore, notes Pam Elardo, director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division and an adviser to the Vancouver Island project.
So far, the Inslee administration is playing things right. It is working with King County on a formal request to Premier Clark, urging the provincial government to intervene. Previous Washington governors won commitments from previous premiers that something would be done. Inslee should stoke the fires of outrage again, and remind British Columbia that it is living in modern times.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).