For nearly three years, a group of rural Comox Valley citizens has warned the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission about the environmental and financial risks of building a sewage pump station on a small Croteau Beach lot.
They’ve spent their own money on independent hydrology and financial experts to support their concerns, and have pointed commissioners toward less expensive and more effective alternatives.
But the commission — primarily the Town of Comox delegates — has consistently turned a deaf ear.
However, all the commissioners heard the message contained in five separate reports on Oct. 24 that collectively validated most of the citizens’ concerns about the project. The message was clear: Beech Street is too expensive and poses too many risks.
So they quickly and unanimously supported a staff recommendation to shelve the Comox No. 2 pump station in favor of three new alternative solutions.
That left several Comox commissioners scrambling to explain why they’ve spent so many taxpayers dollars and staff time on a project they never thoroughly vetted before purchasing real estate, and how they neglected to undertake the studies recommended by their 2011 Sewage Master Plan.
Those studies have now been completed, including a lengthy report from Opus International Consultants that evaluates the 12-year-old plan to decommission the section of sewer pipe on Balmoral Beach, below the Willemar Bluffs. It was feared that wave action and other forces might cause it to fail and create an environmental crisis.
But a separate study by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants reports that the pipe is in better condition than previously thought.
So, with less urgency to remove the Balmoral Beach pipe, Opus has recommended the commission take another 12 months starting in January 2018 to analyze and investigate three better solutions than the ill-considered plan to build a new pump station on Beech Street.
Comox Valley Regional District staff will report back to the commission in January 2019 and make recommendations to restart the project.
The citizens left the Oct. 24 meeting feeling vindicated, but still frustrated by regional district policies that can deny residents affected by infrastructure projects the right to be represented at the decision-making table.
Four new options
Opus consultants have recommended removing the main Courtenay-Comox sewer pipe from intertidal zones due to multiple and significant environmental risks, and relocating it to an overland route — the inland side of Dyke Road — from the Courtenay No. 1 pump station through Comox enroute to the wastewater treatment plant on Brent Road.
They proposed four overland options.
Option 1 would utilize stronger pumps at the Courtenay No. 1 and Comox Jane Place pump stations to move sanitary flows up the Glacier View and Lazo Road hills before gravity takes over and draws sewage down to the Brent Road plant.
Option 2 is the sewage commission’s original plan to build a new pump station at Beech Street. But Opus says this option creates a single point of failure for the entire system, among multiple other concerns, including the highest ongoing operating costs.
The serious disadvantages with Option 2 are the reason Opus has recommended three less expensive and less problematic solutions. So it’s curious why this option was left on the table, other than for comparison purposes and, perhaps, for purely political reasons.
Option 3 also includes a new pump station in Comox, but at a lower elevation, such as the town’s Marina Park. But it also creates a single point of system failure.
Option 4 mirrors the first option, using stronger pumps to move sewage over Glacier View Hill, but would tunnel under Lazo Road Hill, rather than pump sewage over it to the Brent Road treatment plant.
However, the report doesn’t consider how the tunnel option might impact aquifers along the route, and the wells that tap into them, or how the tunneled pipe would be monitored for leaks and accessed for emergency repairs and maintenance.
Why not Beech Street?
Kris La Rose, the CVRD’s manager of sewerage and water operations, summarized the key findings of the five reports for sewage commissioners.
Estimated costs for the Beech Street pump station had jumped by about 50 percent to nearly $20 million. And it was already more expensive than the top options recommended by the CVRD’s Advisory Committee three years ago.
The Opus report included operating costs in its analysis, which citizens have maintained the commission should have considered all along, and that puts Beech Street costs far above all other options.
A complicated tie-in between the main sewer pipe in the foreshore and the new pipe to a Beech Street pump station could only be done by a few specialized and expensive technicians around the world. And short working times due to tidal action made the tie-in fraught with environmental risk.
The small size of the Beech Street property put restrictions on pump station design and construction, and made the CVRD’s guarantees about no odour, noise or vibration beyond the property lines seem questionable.
Opus also pointed a new concern that hadn’t been raised before. The new pump station would have been connected in series, rather than parallel configuration, so a pump failure at any site could shut down the entire system.
The hydrology report indicated significant risks to neighborhood wells.
And, finally, a nearby active eagle’s nest would have required some mitigation.
How sewage commissioners reacted
Comox Councillor Ken Grant tried to deflect blame away from the sewage commission, which he claimed was saddled with a piece of property and bad original information.
He also appeared skepticall of staff’s recommendation to take 12 months to analyze other alternatives to the Beech Street pump station.
“My experience with how government works, is that whatever you say, we can times two,” he said.
Grant also proposed asking a utilities commission to review the consultants reports because he said they were so technical that he couldn’t understand them.
“We’re managing by crisis,” he said. “And when you do things by crisis, you make bad decisions.”
Courtenay councillor Erik Eriksson suggested staff take this one-year opportunity to consider a bigger sewer project that serves more residents. He specifically suggested a new treatment plant south of Courtenay to serve Union Bay, Royston and possibly Cumberland. He said it would take more pressure off the existing Courtenay-Comox sewerage system.
Comox Councillor Maureen Swift lamented the time and money spent over the several years on the Comox No. 2 pump station project, but she added that the goal was to make the right decision.
Courtenay Councillor Bob Wells reminded the Comox delegates that their municipality has dragged its feet on sewer projects. He mentioned delays in getting the Hudson and Greenwood sewer lines operational.
Area B director Rod Nicol, who was just recently granted a non-voting seat at the sewage commission, said there are too many red flags about the Beech Street project to seriously consider it any longer. But, he added, since it hasn’t been definitively taken off the list of possible options, he should retain his seat on the commission through the January 2019 meeting.
The only response to his request came from Commission Chair Barbara Price, of Comox, who said, “We can talk about that later.”
No Comox Valley-wide solution
The Opus report represents good progress in CVRD sewerage planning. It presents the sewage commission with an opportunity to study three better options than its Beech Street proposal, all of which move the main sewer pipe out of the K’omoks Estuary and Comox Bay and onto an overland route.
The scope of the report does not extend beyond removing pipes from Balmoral Beach and the estuary foreshore, and moving sewage over a longer term to the Brent Road treatment plant, which are all good and necessary goals.
But that still leaves the Royston-Union Bay area to the south of Courtenay and the Saratoga-Miracle Beach area to the north, and the Village of Cumberland, without any long-term strategy for wastewater management.
It’s a better patchwork solution, but it’s still a patch.
To address the broader community’s long-term needs, a Comox Valley-wide solution should at least be envisioned as part of the review of the three Opus options. At the least, any changes in realignment to the Courtenay-Comox sewerage system today must be compatible with requirements for the entire Valley tomorrow.
Almost all of the problems with the Beech Street pump station proposal that were identified in the five reports to the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission this week had already been raised by citizens from the affected Croteau Beach neighborhood years ago.
Had the commission listened to the citizens and took their concerns seriously, they could have saved two years and a lot of taxpayer money.