Tofino is taking another kick at the can to secure funding for a wastewater treatment plant and finally abide by its federal mandate to stop pumping raw sewage into the ocean, though its original Jan. 1, 2021, deadline for doing so has long faded in the rearview mirror.
During their Feb. 22 regular meeting, the town’s municipal council authorized their staff to engage with the provincial and federal government to secure financial support for a $77.55 million wastewater facility and earmarked up to $920,000 for detailed design work and pre-construction planning activities.
Council also gave staff the go ahead to begin hiring a wastewater treatment plant project team.
The district looked set to move ahead with a $55 million sewage treatment plan in 2020 and
seemed to be flush with enough cash to put it together after receiving $40 million in grants from the provincial and federal governments. That plan however was sent swirling back to the drawing board when the $55 million cost estimate proved well off the mark and the only two bids received to build the project came in around $84 million.
The district then announced plans to work with the two bidding companies to see if a cheaper project could be hammered out, while meeting performance requirements, and that collaboration led to a new integrated fixed film activated sludge approach.
During Feb. 22’s regular meeting, Tofino’s Director of Infrastructure and Public Works Fraser Work said the new cost estimate is $77.55 million and design work is needed in short order.
“Having to redesign the configuration site equipment and layout of the site to house the new IFAST technology, we require continued funds to support that,” he said.
Work added hiring a dedicated professional team is also an important part of the process.
“We do, of course, want to make sure that we staff the project team so that we have dedicated professionals working on this project on a daily basis, which is what the project will require even just from the staff levels, to make sure that we can coordinate the construction activities within our community in a way that reduces the impact and issues with the public,” he said. “We do want to maintain a high quality design and we are working under time constraints in order to get construction started as early as possible and we have to be very mindful and careful that we have a thoughtful and well configured design so that it does prove out to have the lowest possible operating costs and the highest possible performance to meet all of our requirements in a way that can carry us through the life of the facility.”
He added the provincial and federal governments would need to sign off on the new plan for funding approval and he anticipates receiving their response in May with hopes to begin construction on the facility in June and an estimated completion date of September 2024.
“It’s somewhat of an anticlimactic timeline when you think about how long a lot of people have been at this and thinking about another two years after we get started on construction, which is obviously a hill to climb still,” he said.
Coun. Tom Stere asked what would happen if the funding was not approved.
“Is there a Plan B at this point, or are we just charging ahead with Plan A and hoping for the best?” he asked.
CAO Bob MacPherson said Tofino has been in ongoing conversations with the province and federal government about the project and expressed confidence that the gap between the $77.55 million price tag and the $16 million of taxpayer funding the district has committed to the project, would be filled.
“Since getting some sticker shock in the summer of 2020, we’ve been engaging on a frequent basis with our funders,” he said. “We were in a bit of a chicken and egg (situation) for quite a while here where we didn’t know what we were asking for and we didn’t know how much we were asking for.”
He added staff met with the province recently and the feedback was positive.
“This is an insanely large project for our town of 2,500 people and there’s an appreciation of that in the provincial government and there’s support for more dollars for this project, so we’re optimistic that there’s more money out there,” he said.
“Our message to the province over and over again is that the $16 million we’ve committed to borrowing is a big challenge for us. We really can’t go beyond that responsibly without disenabling future generations from being able to make decisions about infrastructure that are going to be needed by this community.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster asked whether Parks Canada and the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, which are both expected to use Tofino’s proposed facility to treat their sewage, had been brought up to speed on the new cost.
“If they were to balk and say they’re not going to participate, would we have to do a redesign?” he asked.
MacPherson said TFN and Parks Canada are aware that the district has been trying to reduce costs and noted that the higher costs are expected to be covered by grants.
“It may be that things haven’t really changed, subject to us being able to hold firm to our $16 million number as the local number,” he said. “I think it’s very unlikely that either TFN or Parks Canada would not be interested because they both recognize that they need to be treating sewage and the alternative is to go it alone. So, it’s a few million dollars versus what we’re learning is many many millions of dollars.”
Coun. Cathy Thicke asked what assurances Tofino had that Parks Canada and TFN would contribute.
“I still do not see very much coming forward from those two partners,” she said.
“We’ve put ourselves on the line, we’ve made this borrowing bylaw…Will there be a memorandum of understanding with ourselves and the other partners who may stand to gain from this wastewater treatment plant?”
MacPherson responded that a service agreement would be required.
“We’ve told those two entities to stand by while we did some more work to see if we could bring the overall cost down,” he said. “We do owe them some updates and then we have to get into more serious conversations about what the cost sharing looks like. I believe they’re ready and expecting these conversations.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers supported staff’s recommendations.
“For this report to come back so comprehensive and to be able to see how much work has gone back into it and the level of understanding, has given me a lot of confidence in such a massive job,” she said. “It’s just very impressive…This massive project is in good hands and I appreciate the work. There’s still so much to do and so many unknowns, but I really appreciated this report.”
Mayor Dan Law agreed.
“This is a ridiculously large, complicated, risky and expensive endeavour for a municipality of 2,500 people. We’ve been amazingly lucky to have Mr. Work and Mr. MacPherson and a council that has put a tremendous amount of time into this,” he said.
“The numbers and scope of this project seem to me just to be astounding.”
He added though that the project could be dead in the water without more provincial and federal support as there is no appetite to contribute more tax dollars.
“I’m committed to sticking at $16 million. That is going to be the ceiling for local taxpayers in my mind and if that has to become a political issue then I think certainly myself and council can take that on,” he said.