When it comes to the debate over sewage treatment in Victoria and nearby municipalities, perfect must not become the enemy of good.

Concern over Victoria’s dumping of what is essentially untreated sewage into the Pacific Ocean has been on Ecojustice’s radar for years. And whenever the issue comes up, it causes a stink in the Capital Regional District (CRD), making it near impossible to reach consensus on how to fix the problem.

Sewage from the entire CRD is currently collected by a vast network of pipes, which are directed to a few sewage outfalls where sewage passes through a screen and flows, otherwise untreated, into the Pacific Ocean.

On the table is a proposed plan to build a sewage treatment plant to meet and exceed the regulatory requirements (secondary) and treat all the sewage in the area. This plan includes an advanced oxidation process, which exceeds the regulatory requirements, which is an effective way to remove pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This plan would address some (organic matter and reduce the load of chemical and pharmaceutical waste), but not all (residual chemical or pharmaceutical waste) pollution concerns associated with sewage.

This plan — which meets minimum treatment standards — has been approved and has the backing of the provincial and federal governments. But now the Township of Esquimalt, where the plant would be built, has thrown a wrench into the mix. They have refused a request for a minor zoning amendment to allow the project to proceed, and went further by proposing to change the official community plan and zoning bylaw to stop the project from going ahead at all.

The reason? The Township of Esquimalt no longer wants the regional plant built in Esquimalt, rather they are now contemplating a stand-alone system for their small municipality. The main problem with this is that the entire regional system built over 40 years is constructed for a treatment plant at the end of the pipe. Esquimalt’s approach forces every core municipality to build their own system which presents a suite of technical, financial and logistical challenges. By comparison, the proposed plan is a practical compromise that will finally begin much-needed sewage treatment in the region, addressing community needs and ensuring environmental protection.

In 2005, an investigation by our clients — T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance and the David Suzuki Foundation — showed that dumping Victoria’s untreated sewage into the ocean has an impact on the marine environment. Their work found that the areas surrounding the Macaulay Point and Clover Point sewage outfalls were polluted enough to qualify as contaminated sites under British Columbia law. This analysis was confirmed by the provincial government in 2006, which resulted in a legally-binding clean-up order instructing the CRD to implement a treatment plan.

With this in mind, Ecojustice lawyers sent a letter on our clients’ behalf, urging the Township of Esquimalt to move forward with construction of the secondary treatment plant. Failing to do so would violate the 2006 clean-up order.

In the years since the province issued the clean-up order, many options for sewage treatment have been proposed, debated and ultimately rejected. As a result, not much has changed during the last eight years: Debate continues and Victoria is still dumping untreated sewage into the Pacific Ocean.

That needs to stop.

It is important to recognize that moving ahead with the secondary treatment plant plan doesn’t rule out tertiary treatment forever. Our clients believe that this plant can be upgraded to a tertiary treatment plant in the future, but in the meantime, the secondary treatment plant plan is the only one that appears to have the social, political and financial capital to move forward at this point.

Any way you come at the issue, it is clear that there is a pressing need to start treating Victoria’s sewage right now. We don’t want to see the years-long debate about whether to treat sewage turn into another years-long debate about how to treat the sewage, which continues to flow untreated into the Pacific Ocean.

And in this day and age, dumping untreated sewage into the ocean is simply unacceptable.