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June 12, 2014 at 6:25 AM

Victoria sewage rubs Washington officials raw — as it should

UPDATE: CHEK-TV in Victoria offers this report on the international stink.

Victoria's unofficial mascot, Mr. Floatie, speaks to the media at a 2006 press conference on Victoria sewage. Though James Skwarok hung up his suit when it appeared Vancouver Island would build a sewage treatement plant, he has come out of retirement for a "second movement." (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury/ Victoria Times Colonist)

Victoria’s unofficial mascot, Mr. Floatie, speaks to the media at a 2006 press conference on Victoria sewage. Though James Skwarok hung up his suit when it appeared Vancouver Island would build a sewage treatement plant, he has since come out of retirement for a “second movement.” (Photo by Bruce Stotesbury/ Victoria Times Colonist)

Gov. Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine say they smell something mighty funny about those north-of-the-border promises that eventually, someday, sometime soon, the greater Victoria area will stop dumping its raw sewage in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In a letter to the premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, they call on the provincial government to discharge the many pledges it has made. And please, not in the ocean.

Inslee and Constantine are following up on an issue reported on the Times editorial page Monday – plans for a Vancouver-Island sewage-treatment plant have fallen apart.

Even if we didn’t know the plant has been in the pipeline for more than 20 years, it would be easy to tell just how divisive this issue seems to be north of the border.  Monday’s editorial provoked some 20 letters to the editor, most from the Victoria area — one of them from Mary Polak, British Columbia’s minister of the environment.

Victoria’s filthy habit has been a concern for Washington state since former Gov. Chris Gregoire was director of the Department of Ecology. Indeed, an entire generation of politicians has come and gone as officials in Washington and British Columbia have shaken hands, signed accords and agreed that something certainly will be done. Now the planning process seems to have hit a brick wall because the city council in the town of Esquimalt, on the island shore, used its zoning authority two months ago to block construction of a $721 million (U.S.) sewage plant. “Greater Victoria is not doing its fair share,” says the letter from Inslee and Constantine. “This is of significant concern for the health of the rest of the region’s waterways.”

Proposed sewage treatment facility in Vancouver Island city of Esquimalt may never be built.

Proposed sewage treatment facility in Vancouver Island city of Esquimalt may never be built.

It notes that the plant was supposed to be built by 2002, then 2016, then 2018.

“We recently learned that your government has also suggested these timelines could even be pushed back, once again, to 2020. It is now more than 20 years since your province agreed to implement wastewater treatment in greater Victoria, and yet today Victoria lacks any treatment beyond simple screening. Past commitments have not been implemented. Delaying this work to 2020 is not acceptable.”

So far nothing has emerged from the seat of British Columbia government, though Inslee spokesman David Postman points out that Washington’s letter went out Tuesday, and a response can take some time. Meanwhile, in her letter to the Times, environment minister Polak, who refused to overrule Esquimalt’s decision-making process, says the province’s new 2020 deadline for construction of the treatment plant has not been altered. “I fully expect the region to meet both their provincial and federal obligations,” she says in her letter to the Times, “and that proper sewage treatment will be in place.”

No telling about that. A staff document from the Capital Regional District, the island’s regional planning authority, seems to indicate that the best bet would be for the provincial government to take charge of the project and ignore the Esquimalt council. But that’s not up to the regional planners. The staff appears dubious that Vancouver Island could start from the drawing board and get a new sewage treatment plant online in six years. And one might wonder whether the provincial government of British Columbia will have the political will to force the residents of Vancouver Island to pay for a sewage treatment plant likely to cost them considerably more money than the original plan. Provincial and federal subsidies were supposed to pay two-thirds of the cost. If deadlines are missed and the money is withdrawn, sewage taxes, already an issue on the island, can be expected to double.

The letter from Inslee and Constantine says they’ve heard it all before. “We believed and were encouraged by commitments and assurances by the province of British Columbia that the region would soon be implementing a wastewater treatment strategy.”

It notes that a tourism boycott in 1993 cost the Victoria area hotel bookings and conventions. And while the letter stops short of threatening any particular action, it says Victoria’s “lack of wastewater treatment has the potential to color other regional and national issues.”

Absolutely right. It is the kind of issue that muddies the waters.

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