Contaminants in Victoria Sewage and Killer Whales: The Missing Link
The gold-plated, blue ribbon SETAC expert panel charged with reviewing the matter of the disposal of raw Victoria sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca is scheduled to report to its client, the Capital Regional District ( CRD ) on July 12. For $600,000 it had better be good. For that amount, the CRD could have commissioned a first class feasibility study for a tertiary sewage treatment facility. Instead, what we anticipate is yet another study friendly to the position of the CRD technocrats and a fistful of local oceanographers who have been co-opted, which is basically that the century-old practice of dumping liquid waste into the ocean off the southern tip of Vancouver Island is perfectly safe from an environmental perspective, and that there is therefore no need to get rid of the two outfall pipes in the region, one at Macaulay Point and the other at Clover Point. Defenders of the dumping practice argue that the cold waters of Victoria Bight, plus the strong currents, provide a natural, beneficial flushing function which rapidly rids the area of any and all sewage.
Having said that, the panel will have to deal with one of the issues raised in a submission by the current author. The study in question, entitled "Is Victoria Sewage Contaminating Southern Resident Killer Whales?" was commissioned by the T Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, and can be downloaded off of the Victoria Sewage Alliance web site. ( Just click on the "Dr. Gerald Graham's Submission" link on line five of substantive text. ) The submission examines the possible link between contaminants in Victoria sewage and contaminants in southern resident killer whales. What it finds is that although there is no smoking gun pointing to Victoria sewage as the cause for the decline in local orca populations, there are indicators which suggest that raw Victoria sewage is contributing to the orcas' plight.
The link between contaminants in Victoria sewage and contaminants in resident killer whales is basically as follows:
1) A number of the contaminants in Victoria sewage, such as PCBs and mercury, are also present in the southern residents;
2) A pathway exists to transport contaminants that come out of the Clover Point outfall pipe to nearby Haro Strait, which is core habitat for southern residents.
Scientists have in fact postulated that bottom currents around that outfall pipe tend, at least half of the time, to end up in Haro Strait, a core habitat area for two of the local orca pods some of the time, and one pod year-round. Raw Victoria sewage could also be contaminating chinook salmon, the principal diet of the southern residents.
More research needs to be done for a direct link to be established between the sewage contaminants and the contaminants in the southern resident killer whales. For instance, effluent tracer studies could be undertaken. In the meantime, and especially since we are dealing here with a species which has been officially designated as endangered on both sides of the forty-ninth paradox, the pre-cautionary principle should prevail. That principle, it will be recalled, basically states that absence of scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse for avoiding action which might could solve a pressing environmental problem. In other words, one could study the matter of declining orca numbers to death, but in the meantime the target species could go the way of the dodo bird and the great auk. Better to act now, while we have a chance to save these magnificent creatures, rather than dither and risk their disappearance. For, as the Sierra Club bumper sticker used to remind us, "Extinction is Forever!".
An immediate commitment to build local sewage treatment facilities and halt raw sewage discharge into the Strait of Juan de Fuca is all the more appropriate given the Mayor of Victoria's support for such a move, and the federal government's renewed financial commitment to such an initiative. In short, there is no need to wait for the boondoggle SETAC report before deciding to act.