The facts about sewage treatment

Monday Magazine
30 September 2010

In 1968, when I was half my present age, I was assigned the job of assessing an application by the Capital Regional District to discharge screened raw sewage down the first of our long outfalls. The substantiation was by consulting engineers Associated Engineering Services Ltd., and their lead engineer was a brilliant man with a doctorate in engineering. It was more than adequate to prove the discharge would not cause pollution; the length of the outfall was derived form a formula developed by the engineering faculty of a U.S. university using scientific and medical information from the extensive monitoring already carried out elsewhere.

A permit was issued with a requirement that the discharge be monitored by an independent agency, for if land-based treatment was shown by a government agency not to be needed, no one would believe the politicians were doing anything but trying to save money. Indeed, the monitoring was not to prove that such treatment was not needed—which was readily predicable—so much as to enable the public to be so convinced. That purpose was never met for whilst the monitoring results were available; the CRD never publicized them and they have done nothing to justify their original decision to instal that long outfall since it was installed.

Following this, an identical process was carried out for the second of our long outfalls. The agency that the CRD and province agreed on was our own university and the medical health officers. It was obvious that no one was better qualified to assess the impact of the discharges and that is still obvious.

So following 30-plus years of monitoring, not a single biologist, oceanographer nor medical health officer supports the notion that we need land-based treatment. Six medical health officers and likewise as many scientists and not a single exception! When our minister of environment, Barry Penner, ordered land-based treatmnet to be provided, they and many other well qualified people—91 in all—wrote to Penner that he did not have the evidence needed to justify his decision. They received a fatuous answer.

This insult to the university is more important than the irreversible environmental damage that the building and operation of land-based plants will do, although that is significant, and more important than the the diversion of money from needed environmental projects. It not only means that the monitoring over 30 years has been a waste of money; more serious is the waste of talent. The scientists must wonder what their purpose in life is thought to be when the most important recommendation they will ever make is ignored. What was the point of all those exams and all that work?

Not only is their work trashed, so also is the work of the Pat Bay Oceanographic Centre, whose director, a scientist of world renown, gave lectures in Victoria explaining why we did not need land-based treatment. So is the work of the U.S. scientists who selected the director of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, Professor Isaacs, to explain to a committee of Congress why land-based treatment was not needed with long outfalls. So is the work of U.K. scientists and medical health officers whose advise to a British Royal Commission led to a famous result that comparing secondary treatment with short outfalls to long outfalls, the latter under the right conditions, could be “environmentally preferable.”

Minister Penner quoted from a report by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (a report that never had peer review) in support of his order, but the most reasonable interpretation of the conclusions of that report is that we should not be installing land-based treatment.

We are back to Galileo and the sun going ’round the Earth, which was as obvious to citizens then as the need for land-based treatment is now. This is more than a mistake; it is a disgrace.

Ted Dew-Jones,