It took more than a month, but the premier of British Columbia in Canada has finally answered a letter from Washington’s congressional delegation about the million gallons of raw sewage the city of Victoria flushes every hour into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
And somehow that seems fitting, since it has been more than 20 years since Washington started beating the drum about Victoria’s plumbing problems. No one north of the border seems to be in any particular hurry.
The Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation wrote B.C. Premier Christy Clark June 13 to urge that the province find a sewage solution “as soon as possible.” Clark’s rather tardy response promises to hold the southern end of Vancouver Island to a requirement that it develop a new sewage treatment plant. But she fails to address the key question. When, exactly? Will she even be in office? Which century?
We have made it clear that sewage treatment will happen,” she says. “That is not up for debate. Failure to comply with these obligations would result in the possible loss of provincial and federal funding, as well as other potential penalties under federal and provincial laws.
Thank you again for writing, and I am pleased to provide you with this response.
So much for that. The greater Victoria area, home to 300,000 people, is the last major metropolitan area in North America — some say the Western Hemisphere — to dump its raw sewage at sea. Washington officials see nothing quaint and charming about those backward island ways. They shamed the provincial government into taking action as B.C. bid for the 2010 winter Olympics. For a time it looked like a plant might actually be built — first in 2016, then in 2018. But the plan seemed to go down the drain three months ago when the town council in Esquimalt nixed a plan to build a $721 million (U.S.) sewage treatment plant. So far, no plan B has emerged.
Clark’s letter really adds nothing new to the debate. Significantly, she stops short of announcing that she will overrule the Esquimalt town council. The letter merely reiterates a warning provincial government officials have put forward numerous times during the debate. If islanders don’t bring the plant online by 2018, they risk losing financial support from the provincial and federal governments, which were going to pick up two-thirds of the tab. It is hard making much of that threat. If the cost of sewage treatment was too high for islanders when they were paying only one-third of the cost, it is hard to imagine them enthusiastically paying 100 percent of the bill. It is equally hard to imagine them voting for politicians who would force them to do it.
From these shores it seems easier to ask the big question: When will the Canadians ever do anything? It is a question that rankles, as state and federal regulators in this country seek to impose water-quality standards so stringent they can’t be measured and contemplate regulations that would prevent boaters from flushing treated sewage into the Sound, even one tank at a time. Many Canadians continue to argue their massive disposal-at-sea poses no harm at all. America’s position is sounded in a formal way in the letter of complaint from Washington’s congressional delegation. But there might be a better way to put it: Oh, poo.
Below is the text of the June 13 letter, signed by Washington’s eight House and Senate Democrats: U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Reps. Suzan DeBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith and Denny Heck.
Dear Premier Clark:
We are very disappointed to learn that the development of a new sewage treatment facility at McLoughlin Point has been delayed. For the last 20 years, American citizens have waited for solutions to water quality issues linked to British Columbia’s sewage discharge. Unfortunately, while Canada has acknowledged the importance of addressing this concern, there is now no plan to mitigate the persistent water pollution from Victoria, British Columbia.
The strength of our economies in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia depends on the health of our waterways and natural resources. Washington state supports more than 67,000 commercial fishing jobs, in addition to our vibrant recreational fishing, boating, watersport, and tourism businesses. The practice of discharging this type and volume of waste violates environmental standards commonly held by our two nations. Furthermore, while significant treatment efforts have been made on the United States side of our maritime border, the effectiveness of these efforts is undermined without cross-border collaboration, treatment, and restoration activities.
In fact, scientists in both of our home countries have seen perpetually decreasing dissolved oxygen levels in our waters—an outcome linked with untreated sewage discharge. These changing dissolved oxygen levels endanger sensitive aquatic habitats vital to the Puget Sound’s marine economy. Together, we must work to ensure that we have adequate wastewater treatment facilities so that we can improve dissolved oxygen levels and the overall water quality in the Salish Sea to protect human health and the marine ecosystem.
Our countries have worked hard to coordinate international collaboration on major environmental problems in the past and we hope to work together to solve this problem. Since its inception in 2003, the U.S. and Canada have established the largest, most comprehensive ecosystem conference in the region – the biennial Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. This conference is a great example of how the U.S. and British Columbia have collaborated to bring together experts from interdisciplinary fields to discuss scientific research and chart a course for protecting and restoring the Salish Sea ecosystem.
The Salish Sea is an economic and cultural lifeline for the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. In fact, Washington state’s maritime economy supports $30 billion in economic activity each year and provides 148,000 jobs. Due to the importance of these waters to both our countries, we ask that you work promptly to resolve this issue. Furthermore, as we continue to work towards restoring the Salish Sea for generations to come, we welcome ongoing collaboration on restoration, research and preservation efforts to best serve our people and our waterways. We hope you will stand with us as we work to improve the quality of our waters and reduce unnecessary pollution.