That the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission shelved its multi-million dollar sewerage project this summer comes as no surprise.
For nearly two years, Comox Valley citizens have implored the commission and regional district engineers to consider less expensive and more effective solutions for moving raw sewage from Courtenay and Comox to a treatment plant on Brent Road, on the Comox peninsula.
And to do it on a site or sites that present no risk to people’s drinking water.
But the commission, strong-armed by the representatives from Comox Council and aided by a misinformed CFB Comox delegate, pressed ahead anyway to build a new pump station in Area B, which has no representation on the commission.
Like so many of the commission’s sewer plans in the past, this one seemed destined for another lawsuit costly to Courtenay and Comox taxpayers.
But faced with a cost estimate nearly double the original budget — $12 million to $22 million — and the spectre of adverse impacts to private wells in the neighborhood of the proposed site, the regional district’s engineers saw red flags and took the summer to reconsider.
Courtenay Councillor Erik Eriksson
For more reasonable thinkers, like Erik Eriksson, a Courtenay representative on the commission, this pause in a misguided project provides an opportunity for the regional district to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new overall plan that encompasses the whole Comox Valley, and that takes citizen and environmental concerns seriously.
Let’s review the facts:
The commission proposed building a Comox No. 2 pump station — at a cost of $12 million — to redirect its raw sewage from a deteriorating pipe that runs along the base of the Willemar Bluffs. The current pumps at existing Courtenay and Comox pump stations are inadequate to move the sewage up and over the Comox peninsula to the Brent Road treatment plant.
But the commission’s own Advisory Committee said building a new pump station was the least desirable option of several it considered. The committee recommended rebuilding the existing pump station in Courtenay as the most preferred solution.
The regional district’s own initial financial analysis showed upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station was the best and most cost-effective option in the long run. Email documentation shows the Town of Comox disliked this report.
But an independent analysis confirmed that the CVRD could save taxpayers between $7 million and $12 million in the long-term if it upgraded the pumps at Courtenay immediately.
The commission’s long-term plan is to upgrade the pumps at Courtenay No. 1 in just a few years anyway. So why spend millions unnecessarily now?
In the alternative, the Advisory Committee noted, upgrading the existing pump station at Jane Place in Comox, would also cost less in the long run.
Either of those options would eliminate the need for a second pump station and eliminate the vulnerable section under the Willemar Bluffs. Plus, in both of these options, raw sewage would not threaten any drinking water supplies. Courtenay and Comox residents enjoy piped water, not vulnerable private wells.
And Eriksson, a potential candidate for mayor of Courtenay, has a third option that could also resolve issues created by the failed South Sewer referendum earlier this year.
Eriksson proposes building a new state-of-the-art treatment plant in the south Courtenay area that would handle all wastewater from west of the Courtenay River. That would take enough pressure off the existing Courtenay and Comox pump stations to render the proposed Comox No. 2 pump unnecessary.
And it would also solve the problem of failing septic systems in the Royston and Union Bay areas and provide the infrastructure for new development.
It would also provide a solution for the Village of Cumberland, which shamefully continues to pollute the Trent River watershed and estuary.
The new treatment plant could treat the water to such a high standard to use its effluent for agriculture and other reclamation purposes, including reinjection into groundwater. In an increasing number of communities around the world, wastewater is cleaned to potable standards and even flowed back into drinking water systems.
There are probably other farsighted options, too, rather than spend $22 million — at least! — on a pump station inherent with risks to humans and potentially expensive lawsuits that serves only a narrow purpose.
If there’s any justice and common sense left in this world, next month the engineers for the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission will recommend a more visionary, comprehensive sewerage strategy for the entire Comox Valley.
If you get drinking water from a private well British Columbia, the provincial government provides no protection from any activities that might foul your water quality.
Sylvia Burrosa, the regional hydrologist for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), delivered that piece of bad news for thousands of Comox Valley residents at a June 6 meeting with Beech Street residents.
Beech Street residents fear that construction and operation of a sewage pump station in the rural neighborhood poses a high risk to their mostly shallow wells. And a hydrology analysis by GW Solutions commissioned by the residents supports that concern.
Several of the residents recently met with representatives of FLNRO, the Vancouver Island Health Authority and Kris LaRose, the Comox Valley Regional District’s senior manager of water/wastewater services, at the health department’s Courtenay office.
Burrosa said there are no protections for individual wells under the B.C. Drinking Water Protection Act (DWPA). It only addresses threats to drinking water that affect two or more households connected to the same system.
In other words, someone or some entity, such as a regional district, can pollute or dry up your water supply, and you’ll get no help from the province’s water protection law.
That should concern everyone with a private well. But it especially concerns Beech Street residents because LaRose admitted the construction will impact residents’ water supplies.
LaRose said the degree of impact on the wells will be determined by the method of construction of the pump station that will move sewage from Courtenay and Comox households to the treatment plant at a higher elevation.
If they dewater the site to place the pumps below ground there’s a high risk it will dry out neighborhood wells during the entire 18 months of construction.
If they use a pile driving method, rather than dewater, there is an unknown risk of having a permanent object in the aquifers from which the wells draw water. The piles could cause groundwater flows to change direction, making the wells useless.
Given the failed history of regional district engineers to predict outcomes of previous sewage planning (Willemar Bluff erosion, treatment plant odors), and the subsequent successful lawsuits, the Beech Street residents have good reason to worry.
Burrosa also noted that provincial regulations require pipelines carrying sewage to be no closer than 30 metres of wells. Rural residents know that their wells must be 30 metres from their septic fields.
LaRose said the CVRD had to double-wrap the new sewage pipe from HMCS Quadra for this reason. This appears to mean the CVRD would have to do the same for the pipes in the Beech Street neighborhood, which would significantly add to the cost of construction.
None of the health authority or FLNRO representatives could answer questions about the legality of a sewage facility within 30 metres of wells, or whether the forcemain must stay 30 metres from wells along the four (4) kilometres route from Beech Street to the Brent Road treatment plant.
Engineers for the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission are waiting for results from an assessment of the forcemain sewer pipe and a new hydrogeology report before they can estimate the cost of constructing the new pump station. Any of those items could raise red flags that derail the project.
But given the risks during construction and the promise of no noise, vibration or odor from the pump station, another lawsuit over Courtenay/Comox sewage planning seems likely.
Given yet another opportunity to follow its own Master Plan this week, the Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission chose to ignore it. Again.
A letter from two residents of the Area B neighborhood most affected by the proposed construction of a multi-million dollar pump station requested a minor restructuring of the commission’s membership.
But the residents were really questioning the commission’s governance of matters outside of its existing mandate. A matter that the commission’s 2011 Sewer Master Plan said should have been addressed six years ago, but which they have disregarded.
In their letter, David Battle and Lorraine Aitken asked that the Area B director be added to the commission on a limited basis. He or she would participate and vote only “on issues relating to any existing or proposed infrastructure in Area B.”
It’s a reasonable request. If the elected officials of Courtenay and Comox propose to build infrastructure outside of their municipal boundaries, then the elected representative of those in the affected area should have a voice and a vote.
Democracy is based on the idea that all citizens will have a voice in government — their own or their elected representative’s — on matters that concern them. But residents of Area B have been denied representation.
The Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission comprises members only from Courtenay, Comox and CFB Comox. But where it places sewer pipes, pump stations and treatment facilities affect people outside of those jurisdictions.
The commission’s 2011 Sewer Master Plan anticipated this problem, and is absolutely clear about the appropriate resolution.
The Master Plan says that before the commission embarks on any of the plan’s identified projects, it should create a governance structure for areas outside of the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox.
Presumably that would entail giving fair representation — voice and vote — to people in areas affected by the commission’s actions.
It’s no surprise that commission members haven’t undertaken even a simple review of governance structure in the six years since the Master Plan was adopted. The commission has consistently neglected those parts of the plan that seemed troublesome, expensive or that might have prevented them for doing whatever they want.
For example, the Master Plan calls for the commission to review and revise the plan every three years. It wasn’t done in 2014, as it should have been, and still hasn’t been done. Other plan initiatives have also been ignored.
The commission and Comox Valley Regional District engineering staff have a long history of ignoring the advice and concerns of the community on sewerage issues. The regional district has been successfully sued twice over engineering mistakes that citizens warned against.
And history is repeating itself. The Sewer Commission has bungled the proposed Comox #2 pump station project from the beginning. It planned the project and purchased the property in secret. It intentionally withheld announcement of its plan and property purchase until after the 2014 municipal elections.
And the commission continues to treat legitimate citizen concerns with disdain, adopting a confrontational posture, rather than trying to find a win-win solution.
The letter from Aitken and Battle presented the commission with an opportunity to change course, and resolve the Comox #2 pump station outrage before the situation devolves into new lawsuits.
The commission should have treated the residents’ letter with respect, and fulfilled its obligations under the Sewer Master Plan, by undertaking a review of its governance structure and decision-making framework that would address Aitken’s and Battle’s concerns.
Instead, they deferred the matter to their June strategic planning workshop. That could be seen as a positive step.
But without advance work to develop possible options and process requirements, legal opinions and geopolitical analysis, nothing definitive can come from the June session. At best, the commissioners will ask that this same work be done and they’ll discuss it again. Later.
To those already suspect of the Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission’s intentions, this looks like an insincere stalling tactic, perhaps to avoid immediate legal action.
It would be lovely if it were not, and the commission finally recognized the legitimacy of the neighborhood’s concerns and the better and less expensive options available to them.
Andrew Gower, a partner and branch manager of Wedler Engineering LLP’s Courtenay office recently wrote a letter to the editor about the proposed Comox No. 2 pump station. I wrote this letter in response. Neither were printed in the newspaper due to their length, but both can be found on the Comox Valley Record’s website.
Taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, Andrew Gower has made statements in a letter to the editor about sewerage system planning at the Comox Valley Regional District as if they were true, but that in reality have no basis in fact.
He also channels Trump when he attacks people who have concerns about the CVRD’s sewerage planning. And his letter does not disclose that his employer, Wedler Engineering LLP, has done work for both the CVRD and Comox. This creates a direct financial interest that undermines his letter’s objectivity.
But let’s deconstruct Gower’s statements.
Gower suggests the risk of a force main rupture along the Willemar Bluffs will be eliminated by building a new pump station at Beech Street in Area B. This seems true, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
It’s the removal of a pipeline full of raw sewage from the foreshore that eliminates the risk, not the building of the proposed Comox No. 2 pump station. There are several other options that would also eliminate the Willemar Bluffs pipeline.
Two of those options were studied and found to be less expensive in the long-run than the current plan. They are: upgrading the Comox Jane Place pump station, and upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station now, rather than in 12 years.
Gower paraphrases CVRD engineer Kris LaRose as saying all the Courtenay/Comox force main sewer pipes have considerable remaining life. That is LaRose’s hope, but it’s not a fact.
The CVRD started this project without having studied the condition of the force main pipes. They have launched an assessment project that will conclude in June, but it will not provide sufficient data to verify the long-term viability of the pipes.
That’s because the current study will only examine the pipeline exterior for existing leaks. It will not show the inside condition of the pipe, so engineers will get little information about when or where the pipe might burst in the future.
Next, Gower says, “… the risks posed by the … pump station are very small,” and he refers to a hydro-geological report. But that report was prepared for a rejected site on the beach access at the bottom of Croteau Road. It’s been misused to apply to the Beech Street site.
Before the CVRD hired him, this same hydro-geologist prepared a report on the Beech Street location that identified a “high risk to the permeable aquifer lenses” of the area. This report said a leak or failure of the pump station would jeopardize drinking water quality.
But at least Gower admits there is some risk to the neighborhood. The Engineers Canada Code of Ethics requires engineers to “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment ….”
Gower says there’s only a “miniscule” risk that a modern pump station would fail. But you only have to Google “sewer-pump-station-failures” to see that the statement is not true. Just last last week, a pump station in the village of Richmond, Ont. dumped raw sewage into the Jock River after the station failed due to high volumes of rain.
The issue of risk is critical given that the CVRD has said the pump station project will not proceed if the risks to the health of all cannot be “guaranteed,” which is a threshold neither Gower nor the regional district’s engineers can possibly meet.
And even if the risks were “very small,” the results of a failure would be catastrophic. And all the risks would be assumed by people who don’t benefit from the pump station.
The fact is, even the best engineers and their plans are not infallible. The engineers who planned the Courtenay/Comox sewerage system in the mid-1980s promised that a pipeline dug into the foreshore below Willemar Bluffs would not accelerate erosion, despite warnings from residents and environmentalists.
The engineers were wrong, and a class action lawsuit proved it.
Those same engineers promised that the Courtenay/Comox treatment plant on Brent Road would not emit any noxious odours. Wrong again. And another successful lawsuit against the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission.
More than 30 years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, the odour problem still isn’t fixed, though there are hopes for improvements to be made this year.
Gower attempts to state as fact that the DND representative on the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission “would have looked at the facts and evidence presented, and considered all options carefully.” But that is not the case.
The legal representative of the neighborhood has documents that indicate the DND representative was not aware of the social implications of his vote, and had no prior knowledge of such key points as whether a recommended study had been done on the integrity of the force main from Goose Spit to the Jane Place station.
He had not been fully briefed by his predecessor or commission chair Barbara Price before the pivotal vote, in which he cast the deciding “yes” vote, and all three Courtenay directors voted “no.”
Gower then claims that “all currently legislated procedures and processes were followed.” Again, this is an opinion, not a fact. This has not been established by the CVRD with reference to provincial and municipal legislation, and only a court of law can reach this conclusion.
Gower accuses those asking questions of using “hyperbolic language” and “bullying” and — showing he’s willing to go over the top — of destroying democracy itself.
Civic engagement is the cornerstone of democracy. Governments exist only at the will of the people, who must speak out and vote and hold elected officials accountable. The suppression of these rights — which I suggest are civic responsibilities — results in despotism and tyrannical rule.
Gower states that the critics’ “points are not valid.” How would he know? He has not met with residents of the Beech Street neighborhood or others who are concerned that the regional district is missing an opportunity to create a better sewerage system for the entire Comox Valley.
He doesn’t seem to understand that this is about more than a pump station in Area B. It’s about governance, environmental risks and ending the patchwork delivery of wastewater services, which has and will continue to cause inter-jurisdictional fights.
In summary, Gower makes statements without evidence and without all the information. His guarantees are meaningless. And his direct financial interest makes his objectivity suspect.
By way of background, the Engineers Code of Ethics says to “… endeavor to interpret engineering issues to the public in an objective and truthful manner.”
George Le Masurier is an Area B resident who supports a Valley-wide shared sewerage service that addresses population growth, new technology and climate change and takes in more service areas and more ratepayers so the burden — and benefits — can be shared more widely.
Comox Councillor Barbara Price has offered up misleading statements to defend changes to an antiquated sewerage system that serves only Comox and Courtenay residents.
Price chairs the Comox Valley Sewage Commission, which is itself a misnomer. The Sewage Commission does not serve or represent the Comox Valley. It represents the sole interests of the Town of Comox, the City of Courtenay and CFB Comox.
A nearly equal amount of the Comox Valley’s population resides outside these two municipalities and relies on septic systems and wells for their water and sewage treatment. The Village of Cumberland manages its own wastewater.
So Price stretches the truth when she writes that the Comox Valley Regional District is “… planning and managing sewage operations for the region.” That’s a true statement only if you narrowly define ‘region’ as Courtenay and Comox. But Price attempts to give the impression of a broader interest.
The irony of Price’s fake fact is that a Valley-wide sewerage system is exactly what the CVRD should be doing. Instead of furthering the patchwork delivery of wastewater services, which creates inter-jurisdictional fights, the Comox Valley should have a 21st Century model for comprehensive and fair delivery of wastewater collection and treatment.
The issue of the moment is the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission’s plan to build a large pump station on Beech Street, which resides in Area B, not within the municipal boundaries of either the Town of Comox or the City of Courtenay.
On that point, Price also misleads readers when she suggests that the commission followed “proper processes” in selecting the Beech Street site, which she also calls the “preferred location.”
A proper process to site such an important public facility would have been transparent. As is required in the Town of Comox, several possible locations would have been identified and the public would have had input before the commission authorized purchase of any property. A fair process would have given a vote to the Area B director who represents people most directly affected by the facility.
But the sewage commission did all of this work in secret. By shutting out the public, and delaying announcement of the property purchase until after the 2014 municipal elections, the commission showed a callous disregard for public sentiment and open governance.
The Beech Street location was not the preferred location of the commission’s own Advisory Committee — formed after the property purchase was announced and comprising elected officials, staff and Beech Street neighbors. The committee gave its top recommendation to upgrading the existing pump station in Courtenay, and for good reason.
Two separate financial analyses — one by the regional district itself and another by a qualified citizen — showed that upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station was less expensive. The independent report predicted savings of $7 million to $12 million in the long-term.
In her op-ed column Price writes that the Comox No. 2 pump station will only be built if it “can be built safely, without harm to neighbours and their necessities (such as well-water access.” CVRD Engineer Kris La Rose made a similar promise in a meeting with Beech Street neighbors last summer. He promised the new pump station would not create any odour or noise discernible beyond the facility’s property line.
Those are bold promises. But can the public have any faith in their veracity? The Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission made similar promises to residents of the Willemar Bluffs about property erosion and to the Curtis/Brent road residents about odours.
Both sets of residents successfully sued the regional district because the commission’s promises were proved untrue. More than 30 years later, odours from the treatment plant still drift through the neighborhood, which remains skeptical of yet another plan in 2017 to fix the problem.
The Comox Valley faces a watershed moment. Elected officials can choose to invest in patchwork infrastructure that shackles us for decades to deteriorating and outdated technology, or they can create a 21st Century model: a Valley-wide shared service that addresses population growth, new technology and climate change and takes in more service areas and more ratepayers so the burden — and benefits — can be shared more widely.
If not now, then when?
Does the Comox Valley have visionary leaders who see the big picture and consider the long-term? Do we have leaders willing to debate the merits of building a world-class Valley-wide sewerage system with tertiary treatment and resource recovery?
Or, do we have leaders stuck in the past, afraid to think of the greater good because it would be a long, hard sell to voters?
Other North American cities already clean their wastewater to point of reinjecting it into groundwater supplies and, in some cases, directly back into public drinking water systems. They use the byproducts of treatment to fuel their plants, and provide suitable water for agriculture irrigation.
Why can’t the Comox Valley take such a forward-thinking approach?
When elected officials and the community they represent achieve a certain level of synchronicity, good governance and good outcomes usually result.
So a reasonable person might expect that after voters strongly rejected a Comox Valley Regional District sewerage system proposal for the Royston/Union Bay area that CVRD directors and staff might start paying closer attention to the mood of its constituents.
But not the Comox Valley Sewage Commission.
At its July meeting, the commission received more than 700 petitions from people opposed to building a second sewage pumping station at Beech Street, in the Croteau Beach neighborhood. Surely, such a large showing of public opinion deserved some attention.
But when Area B Director Rod Nicol, who is not part of the commission (see below), presented the petitions, there was a deafening silence. No discussion. No questions about why so many people from all over the Comox Valley object to the CVRD’s plan. No attempt to understand what so many petitions might mean in a larger context.
Only Courtenay Director Erik Eriksson seemed to get the message.
Eriksson suggested the petitions represented wide community concern about more than a single pump station on Beech Street. And then he ticked off a long list of those possible other concerns.
There’s limited capacity at the existing sewage treatment plant on Brent Road. There’s concern that sewage pipes in the foreshore of the K’omoks Estuary present a growing danger to a sensitive environment.
The Courtenay #1 pump station needs an upgrade. Project Watershed wants to restore the Field Sawmill site. Cumberland has opted out of CVRD sewerage plans. Voters failed the South Sewer Project referendum, as did Miracle Beach/Saratoga voters previously.
What’s needed, Eriksson said, is for the regional district to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new overall plan that encompasses the whole Comox Valley and that takes citizen and environmental concerns seriously. That’s what people want.
Amen to that. It’s an approach this website supports and has continually promoted.
Missing Eriksson’s point, Commission Chair Barbara Price, of Comox, said they already had a Sewage Master Plan (SMP). Kris La Rose, of the CVRD’s engineering staff, added that the regional district was following the SMP.
Except that they aren’t.
Major Trevor Fenton, the CFB Comox representative on the commission, asked why the staff hadn’t engaged a coastal engineering specialist to determine the remaining life of the raw sewage pipe running along the beach below Willemar Bluffs as recommended in the SMP five years ago.
It’s an important point because if the pipe doesn’t present any imminent danger for the next 5-10 years, then there’s no urgency to abandon that section of pipe and, therefore, no need for a new pump station on Beech Street.
There would be, in other words, enough time to develop a better plan, as Director Eriksson suggested.
La Rose answered that an assessment of the pipe’s condition is technically challenging because it operates continuously. And it would be expensive.
But does it make any sense to spend millions on a patchwork plan to replace a section of pipe that may be in good working condition? Shouldn’t that fact be determined first?
The sewage commission can’t have it both ways. They say they have a plan, but they don’t follow the plan. They haven’t conducted a plan review every three years or created a governance structure for areas outside of the existing mandate and other recommendations in the plan.
These inconsistencies suggest some unspoken purpose for wanting to build a second Comox pump station, despite such strong public opinion against it.
Earlier in the meeting, La Rose gave an overview of a recent open house on the Comox #2 pump station. It was a pleasant depiction that overlooked that most of the people who attended were opposed and that competing displays were set up outside the open house where opponents were busy gathering more signed petitions.
And when Area B Director Rod Nichol asked why the information from the sewage advisory group was missing from the open house, it was shrugged off as no big deal.
But it is a big deal, because the advisory group’s top recommendation was to upgrade the Courtenay #1 pump station now, eliminating any need for a second Comox pump. It’s a fact the sewage commission curiously ignores.
The CVRD Sewage Commission doesn’t have a good track record. It’s marred by mistakes, lawsuits and failure in the court of public opinion. So it’s time to do as Director Eriksson suggests: step back and develop a new plan in sync with the community.
Editor’s note: The Comox Valley Regional District Sewer Commission is a misnomer. The system of sewer pipes, pump stations and single treatment plant managed by the commission serves primarily the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox, who own the system. HCMS Quadra ties into the system as does the K’omoks First Nation.
But residents of rural areas, A, B and C are not served and have no seat on the commission. Neither does the Town of Cumberland, which manages its own sewerage system.