Sewage treatment is a dirty job, and Albert Sweetnam is in charge

When Albert Sweetnam built one of Greater Toronto’s first private tolled highways, he faced off against protesters who chained themselves to trees and hurled tomatoes and dead fish at him.

So, he’s apt to feel right at home in Victoria as the new head of an equally controversial sewage treatment project, where a man in a giant turd costume is the unofficial mascot and a steady stream of protesters picket virtually every meeting.

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At least nobody’s thrown a tomato at him here. Yet.

Sweetnam became the public face of the Greater Victoria sewage treatment project this month. As project director, he’s tasked with getting the treatment system built by 2018, and taking over day-to-day control from Capital Regional District politicians.

It’s perhaps not a job many people would want.

Squabbling politicians are only beginning to finalize sites and technologies. At their last meeting, two prominent politicians accused each other of bullying, one director went on a rant about the public, and an audience member jumped from her seat to scream “Lies!” before running from the room.

Add to that to public displeasure about steep tax hikes needed to pay the $783-million project budget (despite two-thirds funding from the federal and provincial governments), and you get a job some might consider a nightmare.

“When I think back on my history, most of the jobs I’ve had people wouldn’t take for love nor money,” Sweetnam said in a recent interview. “But I’ve always done jobs that were on the edge — a difficult location, insecure, complex technically. I enjoy the challenge.”

Sweetnam emerged unscathed from leading the construction of the tolled Highway 407 in Toronto in the late 1990s. He led a $4.1-billion multi-company bid package, and, in the process of building the highway, dodged environmental concerns about bird-nesting season, avoided late penalties of $108,000 a day, and defused protesters who roped themselves to trees to prevent construction.

Greater Victoria’s sewage project hasn’t seen that level of protest, but Sweetnam said it’s not uncommon on big projects.

“I’ve been through this,” he said. “I know how to manage.”

There are massive technical challenges in building the region’s sewage system, including new underwater outfalls, plants and an 18-kilometre pipe that will cut a swath across the region from Esquimalt to Hartland Landfill in Saanich.

But equally challenging is “to get involved and actually make the community accept the project,” Sweetnam said.

“If everyone hates you in the end, it’s not a successful project.”

Sweetnam hit the ground this month by renaming the project Seaterra and promising increased transparency and more fact-based information about what is being built.

But he admits to walking a careful line. The politicians are responsible for drafting the plan, picking the sites and controlling the budget. He builds whatever they tell him.

“It’s my role to deliver on what they’ve decided upon,” he said. “It’s not my role to argue and fight with the protesters. But what I’ll try and do, as part of my role, is to bring as much of the public on board to support us.”

Already, he’s taken an unconventional approach.

During his first live radio call-in show on the subject, he produced a jar of sewage sludge and gave it to CFAX host Frank Stanford to show that sludge is 98 per cent water.

“Do I dare open this and sniff it?” Stanford mused.

“Eh … I wouldn’t,” Sweetnam said.

But Stanford did it anyway (spilling some on his desk in the process).

Sweetnam’s arrival in Victoria has led to some raised eyebrows among project-watchers.

He’s overqualified for the job, having spent 30 years leading much larger engineering projects, including a $5.3-billion Madagascar nickel mine and $20-billion Ontario nuclear expansion program.

“Even though it’s not as big as I normally manage, it has all the complexities associated with a major project,” he said of Greater Victoria’s sewage plan.

And it’s rare in Canada to find such a large, complex, multi-disciplinary building project right now, he said.

Sweetnam also took a big pay cut for the job.

He earned $834,095, plus benefits, in 2012 as vice-president of nuclear projects at Ontario Power Generation. His CRD sewage salary is $290,000 a year — though he also gets a one-year bonus payment if he finishes his five-year contract.

“As you can imagine, money would not be the primary driver,” Sweetnam said of his work.

He offered little explanation for his abrupt departure from Ontario Power, which a spokesman told the Toronto Star was due to a “mismatch of management approach.” It can’t be explained due to a confidentiality agreement, he said.

Part of the decision to accept the CRD’s smaller project for less pay was the possibility of retiring here, Sweetnam said.

The 58-year-old said he would consider settling down in the capital region at the end of his five-year sewage contract.

He and his wife, a nursing instructor, have already bought a waterfront home in View Royal.

“This would be a fantastic place to retire,” he said.

Though some people move to Victoria for the mild climate and year-round golf, neither perk does much for Sweetnam.

“I’m not really interested in golf,” he said. “For me, it’s the adrenaline. All the sports I’ve ever done have been adrenaline sports.”

Soft-spoken and reserved in interviews, Sweetnam said he enjoys squash, competitive sailing, hang-gliding, skydiving, paragliding and most recently kitesurfing — though not in Victoria, where “the water is too cold,” he said.

He also owns a Dodge Viper, which he and his two grown sons race in Ontario. “You get all stressed out and need some sort of adrenaline rush,” he said.

The only racing he’s doing in Greater Victoria is the kind necessary to keep the project’s timetable on track.

Sweetnam said he would like to sign a contract with a company to build the McLoughlin Point plant in Esquimalt by April 2014. Construction would begin by the summer.

Three shortlisted groups are preparing bids for the plant, but Esquimalt and the CRD remain locked in a zoning dispute over the site. Sweetnam said he won’t sign a deal until that has been resolved.

The project’s tight timeline requires certainty from politicians on the Esquimalt site. “You don’t make the major commitments until you have that in place, but you can’t just wait forever or you’ll never make your schedules,” Sweetnam said.

The new project director said he sees the seven years of debate and planning on sewage treatment as wrapping up by December, in favour of construction.

“I think by the end of this year, this will all be behind us and we’ll only be talking execution,” he said. “Because we have to. If we’re going to make this schedule, we have to move on.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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