Editorial: Make decisions on sewage plant

No matter where a sewage-treatment plant is placed, the people who live near the site will not like it. That’s an unalterable fact of life, and no amount of public consultation will change it.

It’s time to stop talking and get on with doing — more dithering will only add to the cost of implementing orders from the federal and provincial governments to build a regional sewage-treatment plant.

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There — we’ve saved the City of Victoria a few dollars in sticky notes.

The self-adhesive bits of paper were the medium of choice Monday at a public meeting organized to get public input on the plan to build a sewage plant at Clover Point. Rather than having the opportunity to voice their views before a microphone, attendees were asked to write down their views.

Mayor Lisa Helps defended the arrangement, noting that more than 400 people were at the meeting.

“If we had had a Q and A open mic, we would have got input from, let’s say, 40 people at the very most. This way we got input of, I would say, 75 per cent of people who were there.”

But even if only 40 people had spoken, the rest would have had the satisfaction of being able to cheer and applaud the points they agreed with. The support or opposition would have been easy to gauge.

Regardless, the meeting served little purpose. Public input is important, but input on what? City officials went to the meeting with no plan and no design, other than a vague concept of putting a plant at Clover Point, and the outcome was eminently predictable. Who wants to live next door to a sewage plant?

It appears to be process for the sake of process, much ado about nothing until site and design decisions have been made.

Those decisions are technical, not political. While the siting of a sewage-treatment plant has political ramifications that cannot be ignored, the choice of a location should be one that satisfies technical requirements. Choosing the least-unpopular site is not likely to be in conformity with sound engineering principles.

The Capital Regional District spent more than $70 million in choosing a site and coming up with a design. Qualified engineers drew up the plans after much study and many calculations. That effort and those millions have been wasted because the technical process was derailed by the political process. As a result, taxpayers likely face an additional quarter of a billion dollars on top of the estimated cost for sewage treatment.

Granted, the CRD erred in at least two respects — the secret purchase of the Viewfield Road site for a sludge-processing plant and the failure to show people the exterior design of the sewage plant planned for McLoughlin Point. It would have been an attractive structure, an asset to the harbour and a vast improvement over the former oil tank farm on the site.

But all that was lost when Esquimalt let a public hearing on a zoning variance turn into a forum for all those who didn’t like the sewage plan for a variety of reasons. The rezoning application was not turned down on technical principles, but for political reasons.

A sewage plant will never win a popularity contest. The project will require difficult decisions, but mayors and councillors are elected to make those decisions.

The public should be properly and fully informed, and concerns should be respectfully considered, but elected officials need to muster the courage to act. They should choose a site, ask for tenders and choose a plan designed by engineers, not one cobbled together at town-hall meetings.

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