Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dr. Gerald Graham's Sewage Treatment Expertise

Part of Dr. Gerald Graham's interest in the Victoria sewage treatment issue stems from his involvement over twenty years ago in the World Bank's Urban Environment Project in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. Dr. Graham participated in two short-term consulting missions to this West African coastal country, which at the time was flushing raw, untreated sewage into, among other places, the Tourist Development Zone on the outskirts of the capital.

The Urban Environment Project included a component to install sewage pipes throughout the capital, as well as a facility to treat the sewage so that it would no longer end up on the beaches, tourism being one of the country's principal sources of economic activity.

Dr. Graham participated in the feasibility study phase of this World Bank-financed Gambian initiative.

It is Dr. Graham's fervent hope that his adopted city of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, which also depends heavily upon tourism, will now follow the lead of this poor West African nation and treat its sewage.

To be fair, at least we have sewage pipes that collect our sewage before dumping it into the sea. In the case of The Gambia, most of the downtown area at least had open trenches where raw sewage collected.

In 2006 Dr. Graham was commissioned to write a report entitled "Is Victoria Sewage Contaminating Southern Resident Killer Whales?", which was submitted to the SETAC panel tasked with reviewing the issue of Victoria sewage.

In 2012 Dr. Graham was part of a team representing the pro-treatment side in a public forum on sewage treatment that took place in Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria.

In 2013 Dr. Graham made a presentation on sewage treatment before the Capital Regional District Board in Victoria.

Dr. Graham has a keen personal interest in sewage treatment as well. In both Ottawa and Central Saanich, for instance, he and his wife toured the local sewage treatment plants, to get a better feel for what sewage looks and smells like, to see how it is treated and what the end product is. This first hand exposure to sewage treatment is more than can be said for most of the opponents of sewage treatment in Victoria, who probably have never set foot inside such a facility, even though one exists right in their own backyard, so to speak.

Finally, Dr. Graham has visited the site of the proposed secondary treatment facility at McLoughlin Pt. in Esquimalt.

Why I'm In Favour of Sewage Treatment for Victoria

People often ask me: “Why are you in favour of sewage treatment?” or “What have you got against the current practice of dumping raw, untreated sewage into the ocean?” Here’s my answer.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that my position on sewage treatment is not, contrary to what supporters of the current liquid waste management practice would like to think, based on emotional or moral grounds. Rather, my position is based purely on scientific and technical grounds. The fact of the matter is that the current system we have for disposing of sewage, consisting of screening and pumping it out into the ocean via outfall pipes and diffusers, has too many risks associated with it.

We can’t completely control what goes into the system. Source control works to some extent, but we don’t really know what people put down their toilets and drains. The same goes for businesses. For these reasons, the SETAC Victoria sewage panel reminded us in their 2006 report that the best way to control what gets into the ocean is to treat sewage before it gets there.

Nor do we really know for sure what really happens to the sewage once it leaves the outfall pipes. The presumption is that the cold, fast-moving waters of the Strait break the human waste down and disperse it. But, microbiologist Ed Ishiguro claims the waters are too cold to break excrement down. Also, where does all that sewage really go? Where do all the chemicals go, for instance? Do they just get deposited on the seafloor or are they dispersed in marine waters far from the outfall pipes? If the latter, surely that is not a good thing over time. Just think of the mercury, for instance, which could eventually bioaccumulate in fish and whales.

A strong case can be made that we’re also creating a toxic cocktail. Does anyone really know for sure what the impact is of mixing all those contaminants, drugs and bacteria together?

In short, the current liquid waste management practice is not a closed system. In fact, from a purely management perspective, it is more like a leaky boat. Basically, too many things have to go right for those in favour of the current practice to be right when they say that the existing practice is harmless. For instance, the source control system has to be effective; local waters in the vicinity of the outfall pipe have to break the sewage down and diffuse it; the contaminants that end up on the seabed in the vicinity of the outfall pipes can’t be having a significant adverse impact, etc. The real problem is that supporters of the current system only have to be wrong on one of their assumptions for the system to be proved unsafe or unworkable, or both.

Opponents of sewage treatment like to have it both ways. They decry the dangers of piping tons of toxic sludge via a pipeline from McLoughlin Pt. to Hartland landfill, and yet refuse to acknowledge that absent treatment, all that sludge is being dumped into the ocean right now, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. How logical is that, I ask?

In effect, what we’re doing here in Victoria is conducting a gigantic, long-term experiment with respect to our sewage. We’re saying, we don’t think it does any harm, or at least we’re hoping it doesn’t, but in any case we’ll monitor the situation, and if we’re wrong and it does prove harmful, then we’ll treat it! The problem with this approach is that by the time you find out the system is causing harm, it’s too late: the lead time to design, build and operate a treatment plant is about seven years.

As for the aforementioned SETAC report, what it basically concluded was that while there was not much evidence of environmental harm or risk to human health at present, the inherent inadequacy of any source control program, the threat posed by emerging chemicals, and the region’s demographic trends all combined to make the current liquid waste management system unsustainable in the long-term. Now, while that may not sound like a ringing endorsement of the need for sewage treatment for Victoria, we would be unwise to ignore the warning of these experts. And to those critics who say the SETAC report was never peer-reviewed, these people miss the point entirely: the SETAC report, which scoured over two hundred scientific and technical reports in the course of their work, was itself a peer review!

For all these reasons, I say, let’s stop playing Russian roulette with nature. Let’s stop dumping raw, untreated sewage into an area where fish swim, windsurfers surf and killer whales roam freely. Instead, let’s do the prudent thing and treat our sewage, now, before it’s too late. Not in 2040, but now, in our lifetimes.

Is it going to cost a lot? Well, like most things, it depends on how you look at it. Victoria has had a free ride for years, and if we had gone to treatment years ago, as we probably would have but for the fact that our local MP, the Environment Minister at the time, was and is a staunch opponent of sewage treatment for Victoria, it would undoubtedly have cost a lot less. And the longer we wait, the more expensive it is going to become. If we do it now it might cost the average household around $365 per year. So, as Victoria’s Mayor Fortin recently pointed out, a family of four has unlimited access to the toilet for $1 per household per day, or 25 cents each. That sounds like a pretty good deal, don’t you think? What the heck are people complaining about, I ask?

In short, let’s just suck it up and get on with it, shall we?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Transcript of Sewage Treatment Presentation to Capital Regional District Board

NB A Video Version of this Presentation Is Available on YouTube

Thank you. My name is Dr. Gerald Graham, and I am a strong supporter of sewage treatment. An independent review of the CRD’s current treatment plan, as proposed in this Motion, would undo years of effort and cast doubt on the region’s ability to meet the 2020 federal secondary treatment deadline. Failure to meet that deadline has serious legal implications. Trashing the plan also jeopardises half a billion dollars in infrastructure grants.

Environment Canada can’t be “lobbied” to relax the new requirements for the CRD. You’ve been told that no exemptions or extensions are possible. And to suggest that there is an “open marine waters” clause in the rules which will exempt the CRD from treatment is fanciful: the CRD’s wastewater application already describes the receiving environment as “open marine waters”, with no impact on the region’s ultimate “high risk” classification.

The CRD could have been prosecuted years ago for pumping raw, untreated sewage into the sea, in violation of the federal Fisheries Act. If it becomes clear that the 2020 wastewater effluent deadline will not be met, what is to prevent the authorities from taking you to court before then?

Opponents of treatment euphemistically describe our current disposal practice as “natural, marine-based sewage treatment”, in contrast to the proposed “artificial, land-based sewage treatment”, as if some higher power had laid down our two outfall pipes and all that human waste just sort of found its way into them. Let’s get real: you either treat your sewage on land, or you dispose of it into the sea. We choose the latter, Dickensian-style appraoch.

In my 2006 submission to the SETAC Victoria sewage panel, I cited a possible link between contaminants in our sewage and contaminants in local killer whales- the world’s most contaminated marine mammals. Toxins found in orcas, such as PCBs, are also found in Victoria’s sewage, much of which flows into Haro Strait- critical habitat for the orcas.

A recent court case confirmed that under the Species at Risk Act Ottawa must act to protect critical habitat for endangered orcas- a listed species. Admittedly, raw sewage is not the only threat to the orcas, or even the main one. But, as the SETAC report states “…the argument can be made that, where we can control bioaccumulative compounds (such as PCBs) through practical means, we should do so” (Pp. 38, 39). This echoes a point I made in my submission to the panel.

A precautionary approach means treating our sewage now- not in 2030 or 2040, by which time the orcas, a veritable icon of the Pacific Northwest and big contributor to the local economy, could be extinct.

For all these reasons I urge you to reject the Motion at hand.

Thank you!