Mr. Floatie and Co. taken aback by sewage-treatment opponents

Advocates rush to rethink strategy amid growing opposition

Advocates of Greater Victoria's sewage treatment plan - including the infamous Mr. Floatie - are scrambling to come up with a counter-offensive to the growing opposition that threatens to scuttle the megaproject.

Environmental groups and activists who helped push the B.C. government to order treatment for the region in 2006 admit they were surprised by increased opposition to the $783-million treatment project in recent months.

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The critics, including former health officials and university scientists, have spearheaded a campaign to cancel the Capital Regional District's treatment plan. District's treatment plan. More than 50 people showed up last week to speak in opposition to the project at a regional sewage committee meeting. Only three people argued in favour.

With a vote set for late November on whether to suspend work until 2040, many on the pro-treatment plan side say they have to jump back into public consciousness to even out the debate.

"People need to be reassured wastewater treatment is not the bogeyman that the [opposition] groups are making it out to be," said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance, a leading advocate of the treatment plan for years.

"It makes it sound like nobody in the world is doing secondary treatment and no community has ever had to deal with this before."

Both sides have experts who can't agree whether the current local practice of discharging 129 million litres of screened sewage into the ocean each day is causing environmental harm. One speaker at a recent meeting likened the debate to reading biblical scripture, where people find opposing meaning from the same words.

Critics have focused on how the plan to build a single plant at McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt is too expensive and provides little environmental benefit.

"To be honest, many of the arguments from the anti-treatment people are based on false assumptions and cherry-picking of information," Wilhelmson said.

"But there's no doubt they've garnered a certain amount of traction in some parts of the community. And they are being very vocal. But I still firmly believe most people in the CRD agree with us and agree with the CRD plan."

The resurrection of the pro-treatment movement has many wondering if we will see the return of Mr. Floatie, the infamous costumed piece of feces, who crashed public meetings, embarrassed politicians and focused international media attention on the issue six years ago.

Not necessarily, said creator James Skwarok, who is poised re-enter the campaign without his costumed alter ego.

"I don't think anybody wants Mr. Floatie to resurface," said Skwarok, a local teacher pursuing a master's degree in education.

"If necessary, we'll have to bring him back. But I would hope we don't have to. I just think we need to sort the valid concerns from the bogus theories."

Both sides of the debate agree Mr. Floatie is embarrassing.

Wilhelmson said that embarrassment at one point helped the region understand that dumping raw sewage into the ocean was unacceptable. Critics say Mr. Floatie was an example of emotion-based public policy that ignored scientific reasoning.

Like Wilhelmson, Skwarok admits the pro-treatment side may have underestimated critics and now needs to publicly reintroduce its science and supporters.

At one point, opponents of the sewage plan admitted they were worried about "waking the dragon" of Mr. Floatie and his environmental allies, said Richard Atwell, organizer of

But with momentum on their side - along with thousands of signatures opposing the project and a growing group of volunteers - they are confident they could defeat the once-mighty mascot.

"I don't think he's going to come back, but if he does we'll take him on," Atwell said.

"I think it'd be quite risky, myself, because I think the public has moved beyond Mr. Floatie."

Atwell said a debate against pro-treatment plan groups is healthy for the community.

"I think it's good because we want to air all the facts out," he said.

"We've kind of been dancing around the issue for a long time, so having those other groups come out ... they all have their own particular angle on the whole thing, and that needs to be aired out in public."

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