June 8, 2007
I have good news! Victoria is, at long last, preparing a plan to treat its sewage. After decades of denying that it is causing harm and resisting pressures to clean up, BC’s capital regional district (the CRD, as the greater Victoria region is known) is being forced to assume its environmental responsibilities.
The CRD pumps raw sewage – at the rate of 129 million litres a day – into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, contaminating the water and the ocean floor with pathogens and heavy metals. Although the pollution violates Canadian law and draws the ire of BC’s American neighbours, provincial regulators have – until recently – tolerated it. But no longer. The province has ordered the CRD to prepare a treatment plan by the end of June.
We have reason to celebrate, but we can’t relax yet. The CRD is now engaged in a vigorous debate over the level of treatment required and who can best provide it.
We’re proud to be helping shape that debate. I was in Victoria last month to make a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce, to talk with the media, to meet with local activists, and to meet with the Minister of Environment.
My message to the CRD was that it should seek private partners to provide the best possible treatment. Some opponents of private participation – especially the Canadian Union of Public Employees – are urging the region to go it alone. CUPE’s interest in creating public jobs is understandable, as is its ideological bias in favour of government operations. In this case, though, the regional government has shown no willingness to do anything but deny and stall. To clean up decades of environmental neglect, the CRD needs experienced professionals, not ideology.
Since the CRD has limited experience in treating sewage, it makes sense for it to seek partners with greater expertise. It also makes sense for it to access the capital that private partners can invest in infrastructure, and for it to take advantage of the innovations and efficiencies that arise from a competitive bidding process.
The construction and operation of new sewage treatment plants will have to be subject to effective accountability mechanisms. This is another reason for rejecting in-house players. Binding contracts that spell out performance standards and establish financial penalties for non-compliance will help the CRD ensure that it gets the services it needs. There is no similar mechanism for guaranteeing the performance of in-house operators or for holding them accountable.
Even with the best contracts, the CRD can’t do it alone. The province has a key role to play in strictly enforcing environmental regulations. This is a role that it has, to date, been reluctant to take on. It has coddled polluting municipalities and it has kept the public in the dark about the extent of the environmental harm that is being done. And so, in my meeting with the Minister of Environment, my primary message was that he has to become a much tougher regulator one who vigorously enforces regulations and publicizes municipalities failures to comply.
BC Premier Glen Campbell recently called the lack of sewage treatment in Victoria "an embarrassment to British Columbians." With the right combination of private investment and operating expertise and strict public regulation, both the capital region and the province can be become sources not of shame but of pride.