SEATTLE – The British Columbia government has approved a plan to treat for the first time millions of gallons of raw sewage that pours into marine waters between Vancouver Island and Washington state.
British Columbia’s environment minister, Barry Penner, said the plan approved Wednesday to treat sewage from Victoria and its suburbs meets provincial requirements and will reduce contaminants.
“It’s an important step forward,” Penner said Thursday. “There are still some people who would claim that sewage treatment is not necessary. They are vocal, but a minority.”
The region discharges about 34 million gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca each day, and the issue has been a sore point on both sides of the border.
“I’m very pleased that it’s finally happening,” said Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker, whose district is in the San Juan Islands a few miles from Victoria. “To have such a very low-hanging fruit not be dealt with was really a low point for all of us.”
British Columbia officials said the government’s approval is a key step toward getting federal and regional money for the 782 million Canadian dollar ($738 million) project and allows them to meet a commitment to provide wastewater treatment by 2016.
“This is a landmark day,” Saanich, B.C., councilor Judy Brownoff, chairwoman of the committee responsible for sewage treatment, told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “This has been tarnishing our reputation for a long time.”
Environmentalists say untreated sewage pollutes waters and harms aquatic life. But others in the Victoria area say the risks are minimal and the costs of waste treatment far exceed the benefits.
In 2006, Penner ordered the region to come up with a sewage treatment plan after an independent report commissioned by the area’s municipalities said relying on water dilution and tidal currents was “not a long-term answer to waste disposal.”
After years of studies and planning, the regional district developed a plan that includes a massive treatment plant in Esquimalt. Planning and construction of the wastewater treatment system is expected to take 10 years to complete.
“Forty years ago, the community decided not to treat its sewage. Now we’re back to where we should have been,” said Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the British Columbia-based Georgia Strait Alliance, which has pushed for sewage treatment for years.