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Treating Greater Victoria's sewage: Cleaner ocean, but 'kinks' remain

After stops and starts and years of infighting among municipalities about where to locate the plant, sewage treatment is finally happening in Greater Victoria. One year in, we check in on how it's going.

For 13 years, James Skwarok led a double life as a teacher and a seven-foot-tall piece of excrement named Mr. Floatie.

Skwarok and his mascot alter ego were on the front lines of the fight to bring sewage treatment to Greater Victoria, becoming an effective symbol of what the region had become — the last major metropolitan area on the Pacific coast of North America to dump its raw sewage into the ocean.

“Poop, pharmaceutics, micro plastics … you name it, we were putting it out there.

“I used to ask the kids: ‘Do you want a blue ocean or a brown ocean?’ And of course they’d always say ‘Blue!’ ” Skwarok said.

In early January 2021, effluent from the five core municipalities started making its way through the $775-million sewage-treatment plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt, ending the dumping of raw waste that had been blighting Victoria’s waters — and reputation — since 1894.

The region was threatened with tourism boycotts by neighbouring Washington state as the debate over how to treat sewage, and whether we actually needed to, dragged on for years.

But after stops and starts and years of infighting among municipalities about where to locate the plant, sewage treatment is finally happening.

Despite some kinks, the plant is treating wastewater to a “tertiary” level, which is above federal standards, and the biosolids plant at Hartland landfill is pushing out the solids created by treatment for use as fuel in cement kilns.

Although he isn’t well known as the guy inside the Mr. Floatie suit, Skwarok, a teacher at Marigold Elementary School, said some parents still make the connection. Students find out and there are giggles and light teasing, but it’s also a teachable moment, he said.

“Sometimes you just have to stand up for what you believe is right,” said Skwarok. “It’s a good lesson for all students.”

The elaborate costume, made by Terry Bieman from rumpled foam painted brown and a plaster-cast face with sailor cap on top, was last worn by Skwarok in 2017 when Mr. Floatie and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps visited Seattle to celebrate the groundbreaking of the new sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point.

Their message: the region had cleaned up its act and was open for tourism.

Although the plant’s official start-up was only in January 2021, the Victoria waterfront is likely already recovering from years of dumping raw sewage, according to Allan Crow, a longtime commercial diver and fisherman.

WATERFRONT RECOVERY

Crow, who has filmed the outfall and surrounding area extensively over the years, says within a few months, he expects layers of thick sediment to dissipate, degraded kelp beds to recover and bivalve filter species like scallops, clams and mussels to improve enough where long-time fisheries closures can be lifted.

Many opposed to sewage treatment claimed ocean currents washed away and diluted the sewage.

But Crow said his filming showed sewage was widely dispersed from the Clover Point outfall by tides, spreading up to Gordon Head and all the way to Race Rocks.

Crow said samples caught as part of a swimming scallop commercial venture in the 1980s and tested by federal fisheries scientists showed pollutants from the outfall in that wider range.

“The swimming scallops were like the canary in the coal mine,” said Crow. “I would dive outside of that [outfall tidal range], say out at Beecher Bay, and it was a different world there. Everything looked like it was supposed to.”

Crow said micro plastics are the biggest concern. “Wash your fleece jacket, dry it and look at your lint collector — some of that went down the drain,” said Crow. “In a marine environment, those petroleum fibres get coated with algae and are eaten by small fish like herring.”

Those contaminants accumulate and go up the food chain to even apex predators, including killer whales, where necropsies on dead animals have shown high levels of toxins.

Crow said residents of the capital region will also be able to see the immediate effects of sewage treatment because the absence raw sewage “nitrogen overload” in the ocean should curtail massive blooms of smelly sea lettuce that often cover beaches in Oak Bay, Saanich and Victoria.

KINKS IN THE SYSTEM AND THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Both the McLoughlin Point Treatment Plant and Hartland Biosolids Plant are functioning, but there are kinks.

Odours persist at the treatment plant and biosolids facilities as well as some pump stations and parts of the pipeline system as operators make adjustments, change filtering systems and perform maintenance.

And the big question remains about the end-game of the whole system — the long-term use of the biosolids.

The Capital Regional District currently has a five-year agreement with Lafarge Canada to use the biosolids to fuel its cement kilns in Richmond. The CRD is paying Lafarge $16 a dry tonne to accept the stuff — and signed a contract for an undisclosed amount with Saanich Peninsula First Nations to haul it over.

There have been downsides to the Lafarge deal.

At times, the biosolids plant, operated by a private company, Hartland Resource Management, isn’t producing a consistent product that meets the cement company’s standards. And for up to six weeks a year, Lafarge shuts down for maintenance, so the CRD is spreading the biosolids at dormant sites at Hartland landfill under a special permit from the province.

The Environment Ministry has permitted the use of biosolids as land fertilizer in forests, reclamation sites such as mines and other areas, but not in landfills. The CRD board isn’t happy about the landfill application, either, and is wary of spreading biosolids on land anywhere in the region because of health concerns.

Residents living on the Saanich Peninsula and near Hartland don’t like the idea of the biosolids ending up at the landfill.

In a letter to the CRD in February, Hugh Stephens of the Mount Work Coalition cites “multiple failures” of the residual solids plant to produce Class A material, and the CRD’s failure to safely dispose of the “toxic” biosolids in a way not posing harm to ecosystems.

According to the Mount Work Coalition, of the 7,261 tonnes produced in 2021, only 631 tonnes — less than 9% — were shipped to Lafarge. Stephens said while the Hartland plant was able to produce 2,220 tonnes of biosolids to the Class A standard, according to the CRD’s own statistics more 5,000 tonnes failed to even meet that grade and was “simply buried at the landfill.”

Instead of 90% of the output going to Lafarge, said Stephens, 91.6% stayed at Hartland in 2021.

The coalition opposes spreading the biosolids on land because of concerns about downstream water contamination, contamination of aquifers, potential airborne contamination and the long-term impact of chemicals that are even in Class A biosolids, said Stephens.

“This concern is particularly acute because of the close proximity of heavily used recreational areas such as Durrance Lake and Mount Work, neighbouring farms and residential areas, an elementary school and a major tourist attraction [Butchart Gardens] that provides many jobs in the area,” the letter says.

THE LONG GAME — GASIFICATION

The CRD is considering other options.

Among those is gasification of the biosolids, a process that burns carbon-based materials like biosolids into fuel gas, also known as synthetic gas.

It’s a process that Esquimalt is considering for its garbage streams, and a possible solution for the CRD for sewage solids and to reduce volumes at Hartland landfill, which is expected to run out room by 2048.

CRD chairman Colin Plant said the five-year deal with Lafarge provides a window “to decide on our preferred use of the biosolids” and work is underway by staff to study gasification.

A report is expected to be delivered to the wastewater committee board this month “that begins the process and sees what’s possible,” Plant said.

Plant believes gasification of biosolids — which he describes as a large “pizza oven” where heat turns waste into usable fuel, leaving only ash — could produce a revenue stream from the sewage system, and the CRD is embracing that plan as its preferred use for biosolids in the long term.

The gasification process involves oxygen and steam reacting with carbon-rich materials like garbage, converting it into a synthetic gas that is processed into bio-fuels like ethanol and renewable chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics, paint and textiles.

HARTLAND GAS

Hartland landfill has been collecting natural gas from garbage pits using a network of wells and pipes since 1991, burning it off on flares until 2003, when a gas-to-electricity plant was built. The 1.6 megawatts of electricity was fed into the existing B.C. Hydro distribution system on-site.

When the volume of gas exceeded the capacity of the gasification plant, the CRD approved upgrading landfill gas to renewable natural gas, a carbon-neutral form of biogas that blends seamlessly with conventional natural gas, which is made available for sale to Fortis B.C. It was approved by the B.C. Utilities Commission last year, and a deal was set to allow for Fortis B.C. to purchase 140,000 gigajoules to 280,000 gigajoules each year for 25 years, starting in 2023.

The project is expected to reduce the region’s greenhouse-gas emissions by about 264,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of removing 2,240 cars from the road and heating 1,688 homes by heat pump instead of oil over the 25-year project life.

In October, the CRD issued a request for proposals to design and build a new facility that will upgrade the biogas generated at Hartland to renewable natural gas.

ADDRESSING PERSISTENT SMELLS

Procedures, maintenance issues and other problems at McLoughlin Point Treatment Plant, Macaulay Point pump station and along the biosolids pipeline are creating odours. Spreading biosolids at the landfill has also generated complaints.

“We do hear from a lot of people about odours from the plant and the biosolids,” said Plant.

The CRD said in a statement “the optimization and fine-tuning of the odour-control systems is ongoing” during the early startup and commissioning phases, when maintenance and warranty work is more common.

At McLoughlin Point, crews are scrubbing primary and secondary treatment tank lids to ensure the least amount of odour escapes when the lids are removed. These lids will be open to clean the plate-settlers for brief periods in early April. Those plates help to separate some of the solids from liquids in the early stages of sewage treatment.

The conveyance system pipeline to Hartland is also emitting odours. It’s a pressurized line aided by pump stations and the air in the lines is relieved at geographical high points of the pipe. However, the odour-control equipment’s release valves at high points are frequently inundated with groundwater, rendering the odour control ineffective. Crews are working to redirect ground water at those sites, according to the CRD.

A February report by the CRD said fine-tuning at the biosolids facility also continues. When shipments are stalled to the cement plant, biosolids are being used at the landfill as a nutrient additive to improve vegetation growth at Hartland and as “an engineered bio-cover to mitigate fugitive methane emissions.”

THAT BILL ISN’T GOING AWAY

The CRD’s share of building the entire $775-million wastewater treatment project was $316 million (the federal and provincial governments paid for the rest), and we’re paying it through our monthly utility bills.

In Saanich, for example, every three months, the CRD applies a sewage-treatment charge.

The rates are calculated by water use, with the lowest consumption month used so you don’t pay extra sewage charges during seasonal watering periods. The CRD sewage-treatment charge can range from below $100 to more than $300, depending on your flushing and running-water habits.

Don’t expect that charge to go away. The cost of treating sewage will be with residents from now on.

CRD officials say even as the $316-million debt is slowly being paid down, there are operating costs — wastewater treatment, residuals and the conveyance system — and those costs will increase over time.

As well, once the long-term debt servicing is complete on the current system in about 2030, the CRD will start budgeting for an additional plant, likely located on the West Shore, as the region’s population increases.

Population growth will eventually trigger the use of new water reservoirs in the CRD’s Sooke watershed.

The wastewater treatment plant’s 108-million litre daily capacity is expected to peak in 2045 — possibly sooner — as the CRD forecasts up to 125 million litres of daily sewage between 2045 and 2060.

dkloster@timescolonist.com