Editorial: Sewage plant’s future is murky

What now? That’s the big question as the dust settles from Esquimalt council’s rejection of the Capital Regional District’s rezoning application for McLoughlin Point.

The council not only rejected the CRD’s application for a variance on the zoning already in place, but also asked township staff to prepare a bylaw that would make the waterfront site off-limits to a sewage-treatment plant. That reverses a decision made by the council in July 2013, to zone McLoughlin Point for wastewater treatment.

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The application rejected Monday was for a minor encroachment into a shoreline buffer and an increase in the allowable height. The CRD could still build the plant without those changes, but it would add to the cost.

The rejection of the variance is not a surprise, given the fierce opposition of Esquimalt residents to having the sewage plant on their shoreline, but rescinding last year’s rezoning poses a new challenge for the $783-million regional sewage project. The CRD has no other sites in mind for the treatment plant.

The decision puts the CRD in a bind. The sewage project was ordered by the provincial and federal governments as a replacement for the region’s current sewage disposal method — piping it out into the ocean and letting deep, cold currents disperse the effluent.

Some opponents of the proposed project point to studies that show ocean disposal to be a safe method that allows the sewage to be treated by natural processes. They say the land-based system proposed by the CRD will cause more environmental harm than the current system.

Others are opposed to dumping sewage in the ocean, but think the mega-project is too costly and the region would be better served by a series of smaller plants.

Still others say it’s time to stop arguing and get on with building the new system as mandated by senior governments.

Without a scientific poll, it would be hard to say what percentages of the population these factions represent, but it’s clear what people in Esquimalt think. Sentiment expressed in public hearings has been overwhelmingly against putting the treatment plant in Esquimalt.

And who can blame them? What community wants to be known for having a sewage plant adorning its otherwise scenic shoreline? Who wants to live near a plant that processes poop?

The perception in Esquimalt of being dumped on by the rest of the region wasn’t helped when the CRD announced it had bought a Viewfield Road property as a site for a plant to process sewage sludge. The opposition from Esquimalt was instant and furious, and the CRD returned to its original plan to pipe the sludge to the Hartland landfill for processing.

In rejecting the zoning application, Esquimalt councillors were heeding the voices of their electors. However, if they approve a bylaw to rescind last year’s rezoning, that could amount to reneging on an agreement and could bring unintended consequences.

In March, Seaterra, the commission overseeing the project’s development, wrote to the CRD concerning the “irreconcilable gulf” between Esquimalt and the CRD, and suggested the issue be moved to a “forum where a resolution can be reached.”

That forum would be the provincial government, which has been reluctant to get involved in local negotiations. But the province decreed land-based secondary treatment in 2006 and perhaps it is high time the province got involved.

The clock is ticking on federal and provincial grants. More delays will cost all of us, including Esquimalt residents.

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