Hot debate about who should oversee $780-million project

By Cindy E. Harnett
Times Colonist
July 15, 2010 10:34 AM

Victoria, B.C. - A provincial requirement that a public-private partnership be considered to build Esquimalt’s $780-million centralized sewage plant and that an arms-length body govern that construction phase rattled some Capital Regional District politicians Wednesday.

As a one-third funding partner for the sewage plant, the province wants an arm’s length board govern the project. Three models were briefly considered by the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee yesterday: A committee, government corporation, or commission model.

CRD staff recommended that the commission model be adopted.

Staff proposed the commission model consists of nine members with relevant expertise and experience: Ideally five nominated by the CRD board, and two each by the federal and provincial governments.

Members would also be remunerated. Board members for the Vancouver Convention Centre, for example, received $22,000 per year while the chair received $29,000.

Victoria Coun. Philippe Lucas took the first swing at the recommendation, pointing out the commission model includes no elected officials.

“We’ve gone too far in trying to meet the province’s goals and needs in this project,” Lucas said in an interview. “I can’t think of a good reason why we should have this project be arm’s length from the municipalities that will be deeply affected and are providing one-third of the funding.”

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin was also uncomfortable with the idea noting that elected officials should have input. He asked staff to bring back further information.

As well, the province requires that any body with a capital project with more than $50 million in provincial funding must consider using a public private partnership.

That issue put Colwood Mayor Dave Saunders and Lucas at logger heads with Lucas suggesting the majority of people in the region don’t want a public-private partnership and Saunders saying the committee promised to explore the “least cost” option whether that was union or private or both.

The debate heated up quickly and with time running out the meeting was adjourned until July 28, or later.

Afterwards, in camera, the committee decided committee chairwoman Judy Brownoff and Victoria Coun. Geoff Young will discuss the issue when they meet with Community and Rural Development Minister Ben Stewart Friday. It may be that part of the construction is carved up so that some portion is built under a public-private partnership to fulfill provincial requirements.

In reality, the scheduled discussion about a CRD staff recommendation to adopt a commission-type governance model to oversee the construction of the secondary sewage treatment plant was sidelined before it even started Wednesday by sharp criticisms about the lack of vision and public consultation around the present site.

Esquimalt resident Rosemary Murray scolded members of the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee yesterday for doing the cheapest thing in choosing McLoughlin Point, rather than doing the right thing.

“At present the legacy you face is one of inaction and $20 million spent on going backwards,” Murray said. The CRD is trying to rationalize an outdated model and trying to convince the public it’s the only choice, she said.

Carole Witter followed by saying the stench around the way the site was chosen — after two weeks of closed-door meetings to meet an unofficial deadline for federal funding — is worse than anything real sewage could ever produce.

“Where is the consultation around this entirely new plan, where is the courtesy of considering the real impact on my community, where is the business plan around the real costs of dealing with the sludge?” Witter asked.

Those criticisms kicked off almost 90 minutes of responses from the region’s politicians before the scheduled governance issue could be discussed.

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice suggested all directors be mindful of the fact that Esquimalt residents feel like they have been “left holding the bag” and believe they haven’t been given as much consideration as the rest of the region.

The alleged lack of consultation came down to a discussion amongst CRD politicians and staff to the different definitions of the words information, education and “consultation”.

A few directors and CRD spokesman Andy Orr admitted communication around the McLoughlin site was not ideal because so much time and focus was spent in these final months trying to secure Victoria’s Upper Harbour site, which fell through.

Trucks arose as another hot-button issue.

All directors agreed the CRD needs to better ensure the public that sludge will not be trucked from the sewage treatment plant in Esquimalt — instead it will be piped 18 kilometres uphill from Esquimalt to Hartland landfill. “It has to be written in stone,” said Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins.

However, a motion by Victoria Coun. Lucas to put this promise in writing was then withdrawn after directors disagreed on how to most effectively entrench that promise.

Desjardins then raised the issue that during peak periods about 80 trucks or more a day could be passing through her streets during the plant’s three-year-and-a-half-year construction phase. “These are issues we need to discuss,” Desjardins said.

Jack Hull, the CRD’s general manager of Integrated Water Services, confirmed that the sewage sludge will be carried through pipes of approximately 300 millimeters in circumference and will definitely not be trucked to Hartland, the most likely site.

As for the perceived lack of consultation, Hull said the CRD “will be back in Esquimalt in September” to discuss the future for a new centralized sewage to be built in Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point by 2016.

View Royal Mayor Grant Hill summed up much of the day’s discussion saying too many of the CRD’s decisions are being driven by funding.

“Money is the thing, not the poop, not the waste, it’s the money that matters to us in the end.”

Once a governance model is chosen and the provincial and federal governments each kick in their one third of the funding, the new governing body will take over in leading the project through its construction phase.