Nobody wants their town’s sewage to be treated in their backyard.
Tofino has been ordered by the federal government to stop flushing untreated sewage into the ocean and has until December 2020 to put a wastewater treatment system in place.
Late last year, the district hired engineering consultants Opus Dayton Knight Ltd. to complete a $100,434 third-stage liquid waste management plan by 2017.
It looked like a key hoop in that plan had been jumped through back in February when a location near the Tofino Community Hall was identified as the right spot for a wastewater treatment plant but this hoop is now back on the table after residents urged their local government to look elsewhere.
In a letter that Tofino’s municipal council reviewed during July 19’s regular meeting, area resident Rob Renna suggested putting the plant near current and proposed recreation facilities made no sense and would negatively affect property values in nearby residential areas.
“As a resident living in close proximity to the proposed liquid waste management site, I strongly disagree with the chosen site,” he wrote.
“We are a lower income and lower property value area of the community and would be the hardest hit by any decrease in our property values. I also have concerns with the potential smell that the plant would produce as well as the increased vehicle traffic and increased noise.”
He suggested a mistake in the facility’s location could not be undone and asked the district to seek alternative sites.
“This is a very large and expensive infrastructure project that must have community support and I am afraid our neighbourhood does not support the site,” he wrote. “We will have to live with and pay for this project for many years to come [and] it needs to be right the first time.”
District CAO Bob MacPherson advised council that his office had received several similar letters from other residents and that he and mayor Josie Osborne had met with some of these residents on June 29 though they struggled with the technical questions being asked.
“We’re substantially lay people when it comes to these kinds of more technical issues,” he said.
He suggested the district could tell Opus Dayton Knight to take another look at a site on Industrial Way that was ruled out in February due to financial implications.
“We can maybe resurrect that and do a little bit more of this work as we’ve got members of the community asking for this,” he said. “It seems like there’s a fair bit of interest in doing a comparison.”
Coun. Cathy Thicke said she appreciated and agreed with Renna’s letter.
“There should be more than one option,” she said adding, “Not necessarily is the cheapest option, I believe, the best.”
Mayor Osborne said the community hall location was not “a closed door” and that an open house would be held in the fall to provide more information around costs and location to the public.
“We’re, kind of, honing in on things but nothing is finalized…This is one of the things the municipality is going to be doing over the next five years where our engagement and communication is absolutely critical,” she said.
“The reality being nobody wants the wastewater treatment plant near their home but it does have to go somewhere.”
Coun. Greg Blanchette questioned revisiting the formerly ruled out Industrial Way site.
“We’ve run through a laid out process, made some decisions and now we’re going backwards,” he said.
“What kind of precedent does this set? If we decide to put it somewhere else and those people then decide to start writing letters, do we revisit it again? At what point do we throw the process out or just respect the process and ride it right through to the end.”
Coun. Dorothy Baert argued the point of collecting feedback was to listen to it.
“There was an open house and community feedback,” she said.
“There would be no point in having that open house or community feedback unless the committee was willing to look at the feedback and consider it so, I think, it fits really well actually in the process.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster suggested the district’s consultants attend the fall’s open house.
“The complaints I’ve heard is that, when people ask a question, committee members don’t have the technical expertise and the consultants don’t have a heart,” he said.
After the meeting, MacPherson told the Westerly News the Industrial Way and community hall sites would be investigated over the coming months but he doubted a third location would be added to the mix.
“If someone has some idea that we haven’t thought of that’s phenomenal, I guess we’d have to have a look at it but we think we’ve done our diligence and we’re moving forward with investigating these two ideas,” he said. “We want to move forward with this plan at some point.”
He said the Industrial Way site—Lot 117—was removed from consideration in February because it would require pumping sewage a longer distance and therefore cost more money to operate.
“When we were looking at 117, it’s a long way from First Street where the pipe goes out now so it seemed that would be a significantly higher cost than pumping up to where the community hall is,” he said.
“That was a bit of a thumbnail look at it and we’ve had the community ask us some questions about that thumbnail and we want to get some more precise answers for them.”
He said the district’s consultants would bring a list of pros and cons as well as a rundown of capital and operating costs for the two potential locations to the fall’s open house expected to be held in September.
Tofino is one of several Vancouver Island communities currently without sufficient wastewater treatment along with Victoria, Oak Bay, Saanich, Langford, Colwood, Esquimalt and View Royal.
The latter communities are working on a solution together but Tofino must sort itself out to be treating its waste by the end of 2020.
“The timeline is very tight. We think we can be at least well underway by that deadline,” MacPherson said.
“If everything goes well, we’ll have an operational waste water treatment plant by then. We have to be careful for time slippage from here forward though…We have to keep the process moving forward.”
It is currently unclear what penalties the district would face if it misses the deadline.
“We’d be out of compliance with our permit to discharge into federally owned waters. I don’t know what the penalty would be,” MacPherson said.
“I would hope that, if we’re 99.9 per cent of the way there, they would exercise enforcement discretion but I don’t want to rely on that either.”
He said, regardless of government grants, the project would be a big financial hit to Tofino.
“It’s in the $20 million ballpark to build one of these things. We’re hopeful that we can get 50-66 per cent funded from senior levels of government, which still leaves us with a fair bit to pay for,” he said.
“Hopefully we’ll get good interest rates and we’ll finance it over a long period of time to, kind of, dull the pain for us but this is going to be expensive.”
He added operating costs must also be considered.
“The operating cost is at least as tricky because the municipality would be mostly on its own for operating costs,” he said.
“If we have the National Park and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation contributing waste, we’d be looking to them to share in that cost but it’s not as though there’s going to be grants coming every year from senior government.”
He added that, unlike its proposed recreational facility, the district would not need to go to a referendum to borrow the money needed to build a wastewater treatment plant.
“We have to consult with the community through the process but, in the end, if we’ve consulted the community adequately, we do not have to go to referendum,” he said.