Editorial: Many chances for sewage input

When the dust settles and Greater Victoria has a new sewage-treatment system, no one will be able to claim they weren’t consulted. The committees searching for sites for the east and west sides of the city have gone the extra mile in giving residents a chance to speak out on the options.

When Esquimalt council finally rejected the Capital Regional District’s plan to put a single sewage plant on McLoughlin Point, one of the loudest messages was: “You didn’t consult with us.”

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This time around, the politicians guiding the process were determined to do everything possible to avoid those accusations. The committees and their consultants have created a multi-stage process that is open to anyone who wants to learn and anyone who wants to voice an opinion. The eastside’s initial round of public input closed on Monday, and the westside closes on July 22.

Once the input is analyzed, the committees will come up with shortlists for the east and west systems. Then it’s back to the public for more consultation.

When the decision is made, someone — perhaps many someones — will be upset. Consultation won’t prevent that, but it might mitigate it.

That’s because a major goal of this consultation is to ensure that the biggest public project in the region’s history is not designed solely by architects and engineers. Rather than simply asking residents to say yes or no to proposals from the experts, the public-engagement process tries to show Victorians what is possible and asks what they want out of the new system.

Anyone who wants to be informed about the process faces something close to an overload of information. The east- and westside committees have created “option sets” that spell out a range of possible sites and configurations, from single plants to multiple plants.

The documents make it clear that these are not simple decisions. Each set of options has its own advantages and drawbacks: land ownership, seismic hazards, land cost, construction costs, potential for future growth.

Will the new consultation process work? In spite of the accusations over the McLoughlin Point decision, over the past nine years, the CRD and the Seaterra Commission that was responsible for building that treatment plant held open houses and gave everyone what they thought were lots of opportunities to weigh in on the discussion.

Yet the outrage, fuelled by the unilateral decision to also put a biosolids plant on Esquimalt’s Viewfield Road, was so swift and overwhelming, it seemed that no amount of public consultation would have avoided the disaster.

What’s to stop the next community from mounting the same campaign, given how effectively it worked for Esquimalt?

The committees have to show residents that “sewage plant” isn’t a dirty word. Instead of monolithic concrete bunkers and reeking settling ponds, treatment facilities can be community centres or even playgrounds, with the machinery buried under the grass.

Throughout the McLoughlin debate, sketches showed a great concrete block, and that was the image burned into the minds of Victorians and, particularly, Esquimalt residents. It was only after the rejection that Seaterra was able to release one of the designs, which showed what would have been one of the best-looking buildings on the harbour.

This time, the committees have to give residents a much clearer idea of what a plant could look and smell like, and how it would affect neighbours.

And residents have to take the time to learn and make an informed decision. The new sewage system will serve us for generations. We have to get it right.

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