It may seem like an invisible issue but it is one that cannot be flushed away. Sewage treatment is the million-dollar question for Vancouver’s municipal politicians and environmentalists are not about to let it slide after Saturday’s elections.
On Tuesday, Lara Tessaro, a sewage savvy lawyer representing Ecojustice, will hear from the provincial Court of Appeal whether she has a case against the city. “The time has come for Vancouver to begin treating its sewage to modern standards,” said Tessaro.
The Iona and Lion’s Gate sewage treatment facilities dump the equivalent of 780 million litres (or 312 Olympic size swimming pools) of sewage effluent into the Strait of Georgia every day.
Collecting 54% of Greater Vancouver’s sewage, both facilities provide primary treatment – a mainly mechanical process that removes 50% of total suspended solids. Secondary treatment removes solids as well but also reduces the amount of heavy metals and organic pollutants found in liquid waste by 90%. It is also the federally recognized minimum standard for sewage treatment.
In 2001, the federal government warned Vancouver that it was at risk of criminal prosecution under violation of the federal Fisheries Act after both Iona and Lion’s Gate failed numerous toxicity tests. No further action was taken. Ecojustice took up the case. “If they are not going to prosecute I guess that means we have to,” Tessaro said.
Ecojustice is urging Metro Vancouver to upgrade both Lion’s Gate and Iona to secondary treatment by 2016.
“At present, [Vancouver] refuses to remove from its sewage the same toxic substances which have turned Greater Victoria’s sewage outfalls into confirmed contaminated sites,” said Christianne Wilhelmson, Program Coordinator for the Georgia Strait Alliance. Earlier this year, Ecojustice pressured the city of Victoria into upgrading from no treatment at all to secondary by 2016.
“Metro Vancouver has always operated its liquid waste management practices based on the environment,” said Bill Morrell, spokesperson for Metro Vancouver. “Clearly we are not of the opinion that our waste water treatment is negatively impacting the environment.”
Peter Ladner, mayoral candidate for the Non Partisan Association (NPA), is the vice-chair of the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District (GVS&DD). According to Ladner Metro Vancouver has purchased land on the North Shore for the construction of a new secondary treatment facility that will replace Lion’s Gate. “It’s going to be a big hit on everyone’s tax bill, but we have to do it,” he said. “It’s absolutely important to [upgrade]. Iona is next.”
The Liquid Waste Management Plan by Metro Vancouver schedules Iona to be replaced by 2020; Lions Gate is set for 2030.
At a recent debate Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson expressed “disappointment and disillusionment” with Metro Vancouver’s “old school” approach toward upgrading. “Certainly there are cost issues but we can’t continue to rationalize dumping sewage and not doing the best we can just to save some money in the sort term,” Robertson said.
“There’s going to be a big challenge for the next mayor,” said Tessaro. “The engineers of Metro Vancouver are really pushing against upgrades.”
“Cost is a big issue,” Wilhelmson said. The estimate for upgrading both plants is about $1.4 billion. Historically, that cost is shared by all three levels of government, each paying 33%. “That commitment hasn’t come for Metro Vancouver and until it does the region will be very nervous about moving forward,” she said.
“It’s disappointing to see neither candidate talking about sewage treatment as an opportunity to recover resources like energy and heat from liquid waste,” said Tessaro.
Integrated Resource Recovery is a major advance in sewage treatment technology that captures resources from liquid waste. The Neighbourhood Energy Unit found in the South-East False Creek development project will use this technology. Heat captured from liquid waste will heat air and water for 60% of the houses in the new community.
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“As we upgrade our systems we need to do it in the most innovative and sustainable ways possible,” Wilhelmson said. “We’re going to need our leadership to be really innovative in their approach to this problem.”