Is the CVRD poised to make another sewerage mistake?

Is the CVRD poised to make another sewerage mistake?

In its current rush to patch its sewerage system, the Comox Valley Regional District has stumbled toward yet another unwise decision that could negatively impact our community’s coastlines.

It’s not well known, but a 55-year-old sewer pipe runs beneath Comox Bay, to move sewage from HCMS Quadra to the Comox pump station, located at Jane Place. The pipe is actually the old Comox outfall, which was repurposed for HCMS Quadra in the mid-1980s when the new treatment plant and outfall were constructed at Point Holmes.

There’s a risk this pipe could leak effluent into the bay.

To mitigate that danger, CVRD engineers proposed a new pipe across a shorter stretch of the bay where it would connect with a new large pump station in the Croteau Beach area. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said, not so fast.

Before the DFO would approve a new pipe, they asked the CVRD to conduct comprehensive environmental studies to determine the impact of construction on fish habitat and coastal vegetation, such as eel grass.

Rather than take the time to do these studies, the CVRD and the Department of National Defence have chosen to repeat the regional district’s 1980s mistake of placing sewer pipes along the foreshore of our recovering estuary. They plan to build a new pipeline — paid for by the DND — and bury it on the estuary’s foreshore, along Goose Spit road.

This is a mistake for several reasons.

First, pipelines are not 100 percent infallible. Even new pipelines can leak. Putting critical infrastructure on or near the marine foreshore creates the potential for pollution to foul coastlines, or an estuary.

The K’omoks estuary has just begun recovering from acid rock drainage that scorched the once bountiful Tsolum River into a dead river, barren of aquatic life. The Mt. Washington Copper Mining Co. only operated for a couple of years in the mid-1960s, but it left decades of toxins and heavy metals leaching into the Tsolum River’s tributaries, down the river and eventually polluting the K’omoks estuary.

Thanks to the Tsolum River Restoration Society and the the K’omoks First Nation, the river and the estuary have started to recover. The K’omoks have worked hard to establish a successful shellfish harvesting enterprise, partly in Comox Bay, shipping more than 2 million oysters annually worldwide.
The plan to put a new sewer pipe in Comox Bay poses a threat to the K’omoks shellfish harvesting.

Second, pipeline construction in the foreshore in several sections will disrupt coastal vegetation and possibly also fish habitat. But the CVRD doesn’t know for sure, because it has not done any environmental studies of the new sewer pipe route.

Third, the CVRD has not taken into account the impacts on Goose Spit from climate change, sea level rise and the increasing frequency and intensity of winter storms. Sea levels could rise so swiftly within the next 20-30 years that Goose Spit road might become treacherous to navigate, or even impassable.

A recent climate change study led by a retired NASA climate scientist focused on a period about 120,000 years ago when the Earth last warmed naturally, to average temperatures estimated at only slightly higher than today. During that period, sea levels rose by up to 30 feet. The study, published recently in the European journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, predicts today’s warming will occur more rapidly, within decades.

But a sea level rise of just a few feet, combined with more frequent and severe winter storms, will have a devastating impact on Goose Spit. Higher sea levels could wash the road out completely.

This past winter, several storms sent waves crashing across the Spit road, washing up large logs and a sea lion, and weakening the Spit’s protections. The damage required repairs.

Before building new infrastructure in a marine environment, the DND and CFB Comox must consider the future of HCMS Quarda in light of how the effects of climate change might reshape the Goose Spit shoreline.

The Comox Valley Regional District should also think about these long-term possibilities.

At the April sewage commission meeting, Courtenay councilor Erik Erikksson asked why the DND couldn’t build a self-contained, small treatment plant at HMCS Quarda, eliminating the need for a new pipe. CVRD senior Engineer Marc Rutten responded, “We haven’t investigated” that option, and that he had “no good answer.”

It’s unacceptable that the CVRD hasn’t taken the time to examine every possible option. How can elected officials make good decisions when all the information isn’t on the table?

A decade ago, the CVRD recognized that its sewer pipe on the beach below Willemar Bluffs was vulnerable to winter storms. But it has yet to follow through on its own Sewer Master Plan recommendation to engage a coastal engineer to determine the remaining safe life of the pipeline. Yet, it’s now in an inexplicable hurry to make multi-million dollar changes to its sewerage system, without complete due diligence or exploration of all options.

This tunnel vision has resulted in planning inconsistencies. For example, the CVRD has focussed on the Willemar Bluff section of pipe, but has not yet discussed an equally vulnerable section of sewer pipe from the treatment plant, along the popular Point Homes beach enroute to the outfall into the Strait of Georgia.

At its May sewer commission meeting, the CVRD offered no explanation why replacing the Willemar Bluff section was any more urgent than replacing the Point Holmes section.

Voters and taxpayers in the Comox Valley should call on the CVRD to step back, take a breath and make room for a more environmentally secure plan to evolve, one based on new and emerging scientific data.

Other communities have built leading-edge wastewater management systems that recover and reuse resources, such as reclaimed water and energy to heat and operate treatment plants. Some cities, such as Campbell River, have taken serious notice of how climate change will reshape shorelines and made the wise decision to remove critical infrastructure from the foreshore.

The Comox Valley deserves that kind of thoughtful, calm leadership.

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should the University of British Columbia buy shares in and take profits from fossil fuel companies or invest in funds and projects directly linked to controversial energy projects?

The UBC Board of Governor’s considered that question after some faculty and staff urged the university to divest its endowment fund stakes in fossil fuel projects.

On the surface, the answer is simple. The Board of Governor’s mandate is to make money for the endowment fund. Its fiduciary duty is simply to get the best return possible to support the school’s academic mission.

But setting investment policy is more complex than that. UBC is responsible for examining the short- and long-term risks of its investments. And that requires assessing both internal and external factors that might influence an investment’s return.

A large institutional investor such as UBC can use its leverage to change company policies.

When evaluating any individual investment, the university must consider whether climate change poses any financial risk to its expected returns.

In regards to its positions in projects related to fossil fuels, UBC’s investment committee waffled. It decided not to divest from fossil fuels at this time, but directed its lawyers to review legal questions arising out of any possible future divestment.

That certainly is a cautionary approach. Given the speed at which climate change is occurring and the global pressure to reduce carbon emissions now required by the Paris Agreement, the university should have already answered its legal questions and been prepared to update its investment policies.

If divestment exposes the board to potential legal action over its failure to produce as much value as possible, then it will have no choice but to continue investing in lucrative but controversial energy projects. And it should work quickly to change whatever mandate or legislation impedes them from divesting.

In the meantime, however, UBC should develop a strategy for showing greater sensitivity to environmental issues. The university’s Board of Governor’s should press companies for greater transparency about the risk from climate change, and how they are mitigating that risk.

A large institutional investor such as UBC can use its leverage to change company policies.

And, by the way, let’s put to rest the notion that the UBC investment committee is handling only “public” money. Private individuals and group donations account for 75 percent of the endowment funds. It’s more difficult to classify the balance, which comes from housing developments on UBC’s land.

It’s important for UBC to move quicker than it has. If Canada is going to meet its obligations in the Paris Agreement to keep emissions below the 1.5 to 2.0 degree target, every institution and every individual has to start today planning for a world that does not depend on oil or gas.

The UBC Board of Governor’s has done the prudent thing, for now. But that action is woefully lagging.

When city councils listen, good things can happen

When city councils listen, good things can happen

The story of a Vancouver Island municipal infrastructure project, delayed for over a decade, appears headed for a happy ending.

In the 1990s, the City of Campbell River planned to upgrade and replace a key sewer force-main pipe that serves the southern portion of the city. The 6-plus kilometer pipe originally served a much smaller population, so it required upsizing. Also, given its age — about 50 years old — the pipe had begun to fail, causing leaks.

City officials considered starting with a 1.5 kilometer stretch where the pipe sits on the beach and is vulnerable to winter storms.  But there were challenges in arriving at a final concept, and funding issues. So they started with the more southern sections, which could also be incorporated into a highway renewal project through Willow Point.

Engineering studies proposed a variety of options for the section on the beach, including twinning the pipe and covering it with concrete to protect it from erosion. The city council of the day liked this idea, especially because it included the potential for a pedestrian walkway on top of the encasement.

Thank goodness the city didn’t dismiss the residents’ concerns and push the project ahead anyway.

But when the concept was presented to the community, it didn’t sit well with nearby residents. The city council listened to the residents’ concerns, and focussed resources on replacing the other sections of the pipeline.

Around 2008, a harsh winter storm washed out sections of the Old Island Highway near Oyster Bay.  This caused city staff to notice an increase in the wear and tear on the sea walk and to begin to understand the potential effects of sea level rise, climate change and the impact to the foreshore.

When the city planners turned their attention back to that 1.5 kilometers of sewer pipe, the city’s only sewer force-main pipe located on a foreshore, they realized the original plan had not taken into account the potential impacts of sea level rise and the increasing severity of winter storms.

The world was a different place in the late 1990s. Climate change hadn’t entered the discussion about municipal infrastructure. Fortunately, design standards are continually being updated to address changing conditions.

City staff studied the expected impacts of sea level rise and determined that the marine foreshore environment is likely to undergo significant changes in the next 100 years. As a result of these anticipated changes, staff now recommends that proper consideration be given to the placement of any critical infrastructure within the marine foreshore environment.

Campbell River staff have also determined that it’s a comparable cost to place the force-main within the highway structure and out of the marine foreshore. Moving the pipe overland will also likely result in reduced operating costs as the anticipated changes to the marine foreshore occur in the coming years.

Staff are now working on a report that summarizes these new developments and a plan to move the sewer pipe out of the foreshore. They will present it to City Council in the near future.

So, some people with a self-interest triggered a fortuitous delay of what to some seemed like a good idea in the 1990s, but which would have actually been a serious mistake.

Thank goodness the city didn’t dismiss the residents’ concerns and push the project ahead anyway.

Thanks in part to neighbors who opposed the project, and thanks to a city council that took the residents’ concerns seriously, the delay provided time for a better plan to emerge, one based on new and emerging scientific data.

A call for civility: ‘NIMBY’ is not a four-letter word

A call for civility: ‘NIMBY’ is not a four-letter word

Don’t want a toxic waste dump built on the vacant lot next to your home? Better enlist someone from a neighboring province to become the face of your Stop the Dump! campaign.

Otherwise, you’ll be dismissed as a NIMBY.

People who live in Victoria neighborhoods near Clover Point, and who oppose building a sewage treatment plant in this popular city park, have been labelled as NIMBYs. The mayor of Comox has used the NIMBY term to describe residents of a neighborhood just outside the town’s boundaries where a sewage pump station is proposed.

The acronym stands for “not-in-my-backyard,” and it’s almost always used in a pejorative sense. It’s a way to suggest that any opposition originating out of self-interest could not possibly have merit.

And the term is meant to imply worse: it stereotypes individuals or groups who oppose projects as selfish, or as hypocritical people who would turn a blind eye if the project were built somewhere else. In some cases, that may be true.

But the dirty little secret is that people usually throw out the NIMBY label to feel ethically justified when they stop listening to opposing viewpoints. If you want to dismiss someone’s concerns without having to address them, just call them a NIMBY. As if that term alone explains everything.

British Columbians should leave this type of name-calling to the Donald Drumpfs of the world. There’s nothing wrong with speaking out about projects that affect people’s quality of life or the character of their neighborhoods.

… self-interest can blossom into important policy debates.

What homeowner would honestly say they hope someone builds a sewage plant or nuclear waste dump or a fracking operation next door? Or that they’re glad a stinking hazardous waste plant will likely devalue their home?

But those developments are going somewhere, so it’s natural that those who live closest to an environmentally or culturally sensitive project will be the first to ask hard questions. And that self-interest can blossom into important policy debates.

Was the decision-making process fair? Were conflicts of interest overlooked? Did municipalities make decisions without studies that were recommended, but never completed? Were undemocratic deals made? Are there better options?

These are questions that might never get answered unless the people most affected have the courage to ask them.

When civic activism rises out of self-interest, it can drift in essentially two directions. If the siting of a project was fair, and there are no better options, and the opposition is based on nothing but a narrow self-interest, the movement will usually fail.

But if the neighbors’ initial hard questions are ignored, or not answered rationally and respectfully, if it turns out the process wasn’t fair or better options were not explored, then a “not-in-my-backyard” campaign can easily transform into a “not-in-anyone’s-backyard” community movement.

More often than not, it’s someone who’s been labelled a NIMBY that exposes flaws in the decision-making process, and makes the larger community aware of important issues that otherwise would have remained hidden.

Bullying and bullies have no place in a civil society.

Only the saints always act out of altruism. The rest of us usually vote in our self-interest. We select candidates who we believe will focus on the issues important to us.

When we’re passionate about something, we support it. We’re most likely to give to charities that help family members or people we know. We support museums because we like history or art, and parks because our kids play baseball.

But there’s no good reason to deny people a democratic voice simply because they have a self-interest rooted in geography. Their motives are just as important as the developer who wants to make a profit, or the elected official who acts only to appease his or her voter base. Those are self-interests, too.

The Leap Manifesto offers a glimmer of hope that Canadians have gotten past using NIMBY name-calling to intimidate people. Supported by a wide variety of Canadians and elected officials, The Manifesto includes this sentence: “The new iron law of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.”

Bullying and bullies have no place in a civil society. So let’s stop labelling people to avoid debate on the merits of their arguments.

Playing God isn’t as easy as it seems, there’s a lot of guilt

Playing God isn’t as easy as it seems, there’s a lot of guilt

I’ve been playing God lately.

You know, deciding who lives, who dies. When to end a life, and whether by violent or somewhat more humane means.

And I have to say that, while it’s kind of empowering to play God, there’s a lot of guilt involved. I can’t say for sure if God feels any guilt about letting me live, while my two high school and college buddies died in horrific accidents. But I sure do.

I make most of my decisions about who to kill and not to kill in the spring. Because that’s when the natural world tries to invade my personal space.

This year, for example, I’m killing off carpenter ants by the thousands. Crushing them on sight without trial or remorse. I dispatch carpenter ants to the afterlife simply on sight, and without guilt.

Spiders, on the other hand, I take great care to capture in a drinking glass, under which I slip a stiff paper or or piece of cardboard. I try not to damage their many legs. What is that, 6 or 8, I don’t know.

Then I sentence the spider to the George Relocation Program, sometimes walking them all the way across the front lawn and flinging them into what could possibly be their preferred natural habitat in the neighbor’s yard. I only say to them, “You can’t live in my house,” and “You’re going to love this.”

Wasps die, usually by covering them in what looks like the foam in my Starbucks latte cup. I get too much foam at The Buck, and it kills me, too.

Bees live. I like bees. They aren’t mean like wasps. I think bees only sting you if you’re mean to them first, threaten them in some way. Wasps are like motorcycle gangs. They’ll sting you for no F-ing reason whatsoever, or because they’re drunk after gnawing up all that dried wood off your cedar fence.

Rats die, squirrels live. I kill a rat, there’s no remorse. But raised in a family of avid hunters, I made squirrels disappear by shooting gazillions of them with a 20-gauge shotgun. They would literally vanish. I still feel terrible about that.

Flys are dirty, so they die. Or as a friend of mine put it after a particularly hard day, “I just improved my outlook by washing windows and getting rid of all the smashed fly guts that were darkening my view.” Butterflies and most other flying creatures live.

You get the picture, right? I don’t feel remorse for killing living things that intend to harm my person or my property. But I take extra care not to harm living things that do me no harm.

Maybe that’s how God does it. I don’t know.

But I can say that if B.C. conservation laws allowed, I would gladly put the hit on every last deer wandering around my neighborhood like they own it. Urban deer are pests. They’re just big rats. They wander uninvited into your yard, chew up about $500 worth of plants, drop a pile of brown marbles and fall asleep on your lawn.

Oh, but the deer are so cute. The little deerettes have big doe eyes, and cute little noses. Horsefeathers. I like to think God would have kept Walt Disney around until about age 187 just to make more happy family films. But, no, Walt, had to go glamorize a little pest and named it Bambi. And he was punished.

And don’t get me started on the proliferation of wild bunny rabbits.

It gets serious for me when the B.C. government conducts misguided wolf kills, and allows trophy hunters to kill bears. There’s no excuse for big game hunters — like Donald Drumpf’s two sons — to shoot wild African animals. In fact, I don’t see the sense in most hunting these days, because for most people, hunting is for sport, not a food necessity.

And yet, in the time it’s taken you to read this, I’ve probably taken the lives of several carpenter ants and a few wasps. Is there a difference between what I do and what hunters or the B.C. government are doing? I think so.

Sometimes I justify my killing with the Bambi principle. Wolves and bears are cute woodland creatures. Ants and wasps are ugly … and creepy. But then, how do I make peace with my desire to murder deer? It gets confusing.

All I can say for sure is that if you believe in the afterlife and that you might be reincarnated as some fish or fowl, choose carefully before entering the universe under my omnipresence.

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