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.
When Royston and Union Bay voters overwhelmingly rejected the South Sewer Project on Saturday, they added their voices to a broadening concern about the Comox Valley Regional District’s sewerage strategy.
Consider: Some years ago, residents of the Saratoga-Miracle Beach area rejected a CVRD proposal for a system to replace private septic systems. The Village of Cumberland recently opted out of CVRD sewer planning. The SSP referendum went down, hard.
Also, a coalition of 10 Valley environmental groups, a group of affected residents and hundreds of individuals are pressing the CVRD sewage commission to halt plans for an unnecessary pump station on Beech Street. A large number of those folks turned out to a CVRD open house this week to express that view, and nearly a thousand people have signed their petition.
Such widespread resistance should mean something to the CVRD and the sewage commission.
So how will the CVRD respond, and where do we go from here?
Right now, people have lost confidence in the CVRD over sewerage. It’s credibility has been sullied by a history of bad decisions, citizen lawsuits and secretive negotiations — and by an approach that’s out of step with the response of other communities to a changing climate.
The South Sewer Project (SSP) failed for a number of reasons, but the result makes it clear that Valley voters don’t want a patchwork of sewerage systems.
Perhaps the decisive 79% (no) to 29% (yes) rejection of the SSP will jar the CVRD and its sewage commission into some fresh thinking. The failed referendum at least presses the pause button, and creates space for a new strategy to emerge.
That new strategy should encompass the entire Comox Valley. It should include the ideas of people outside the hunkered down CVRD office. It should not exclude people, or force infrastructure on neighborhoods that won’t benefit. It should be collaborative, transparent and inclusive.
It should be driven by a vision that the Valley can lead the province in sustainable wastewater management.
If the CVRD does that, it can win community support for a Valley-wide, state-of-the-art, all-overland sewerage system.
Of course, a single Comox Valley governing body could make this happen more quickly. Amalgamation could prevent a single region of the Valley — for example, the Town of Comox or Cumberland — from blocking solutions that benefit the greater Comox Valley. But that’s another topic.
For now, the CVRD has a new window of opportunity to accurately read the public mood and respond positivity.
A crowd of roughly 75 citizens peppered Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Marc Rutten Jan. 17 with questions and angry statements at an open house about the HMCS Sewer Project.
At times the meeting threatened to spin out of control as residents shouted critical responses to Rutten’s remarks without being called on to speak.
A majority of the attendees appeared to reside in the Hawkins Road and Croteau Beach neighborhoods, where a new force main sewer pipe from the sea cadet facility on Goose Spit will wind through local roads enroute to connecting with Courtenay-Comox sewage pipes.
The route assumes the eventual construction of a new Comox #2 pump station to be built on a Beech Street lot, which is outside the Comox town boundary. If that pump station does not get built, then the Quadra pipe will have gone out of its way by a considerable distance, and at a much greater expense.
The Quadra route’s assumption of a new Comox pump station rankled many of those grilling Rutten during his presentation and follow-up question period. And that led to questions and critical statements about the Courtenay-Comox sewerage system, which is operated by the regional district.
Many residents argued that upgrading the Courtenay #1 pump station now, which has to be done in a few years anyway, would be cheaper in the long run.
“Why not take the longer view,” asked one resident.
Rutten tried to separate the two issues. He said that regardless of whether the Comox #2 pump station is built, the sewer pipe from Quadra would still need to be replaced.
Numerous residents responded by saying that was true, but the route of the pipe would be different, and it would not run through their neighborhood and close to many residents’ shallow wells.
They accused Rutten of being disingenuous and the Sewage Commission — made up of three Courtenay directors, three from Comox and a single CFB Comox representative — of bullying the neighborhood through a lack of communication and disrespect for their concerns.
The citizens also criticized Rutten for not considering other sewerage options for HMCS Quadra. Most of the year, fewer than 50 people work onsite. During peaks weeks of the summer, there can be nearly 1,000 cadets and staff, at the facility.
In response to a question about whether his engineering department considered other sewage treatment options, such as an onsite facility, Rutten said they did not.
He said there had been “no consideration of other options” than the one proposed.
The system designed by CVRD engineers will cost $1.78 million. Federal tax dollars will pay for the proposed system through the Department of National Defense budget.
But one of British Columbia’s most innovative designers of septic systems for residential and commercial properties, Jim Ripley of Turtle Tanks in Kelowna, has estimated the cost of a small bore sewer system for HMCS Quadra at around $250,000.
Ripley has not provided the CVRD with an official estimate nor did he have access to all of the HMCS Quadra data. He was roughly estimating the cost on numbers of users only at the request of Decafnation.
A small bore sewerage system would consist of a large septic tank and a small pump to move effluent through a small two-inch diameter pressure pipe into the Courtenay-Comox system. The small bore pipe could be slipped through the existing Quadra pipe, even though it is outdated for carrying wastewater directly.
Rutten called this option “not feasible,” but said he had no supporting data for his statement.
Small bore systems are used around the world, including Canada, to service entire villages. Ripley suggested a small bore system might also be applicable to connect Royston and Union Bay homeowners to the Courtenay-Comox system at a significantly lower cost.
Rutten started the meeting by explaining that HMCS Quadra sewage currently flows to the Comox Jane Place pump station via the town’s old outfall pipe. It was originally laid across Comox Bay in the mid-1960s and used to discharge the town’s sewage until the current Courtenay-Comox system became operational in 1985.
Many residents of Royston and Union Bay will vote tomorrow on whether to fund a new sewerage system to service their communities. This seemingly isolated decision will have a profound and long-term impact on the entire Comox Valley.
If voters approve this referendum, known as the South Sewer Project (SSP), they will create the Valley’s third separate sewerage system. The other two are the Courtenay-Comox system, also managed through the Comox Valley Regional District, and the system serving the Village of Cumberland.
On its website, the CVRD lists a fourth sewerage system for the Saratoga-Miracle Beach as a future initiative. In 2006, however, voters rejected the CVRD’s proposal for a wastewater management system for that area.
If the SSP moves ahead, it will lay more pipe in our estuaries and Baynes Sound, and commit the Valley to an uncoordinated sewerage system, perhaps forever. It will make it more difficult to achieve the ideal solution: a state-of-the-art Comox Valley-wide, all-overland sewerage system.
Of course, such an achievement would require Comox Valley jurisdictions to work together for the greater good. While that may not seem likely at the moment, it’s possible.
When the 13 municipalities and three electoral areas that comprise the Capital Regional District couldn’t agree on where to locate its new sewage treatment plant, Peter Fassbender, the minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development, stepped in and formed a panel of experts to make the decision.
It’s not likely Fassbender would take a similar directive action here, but a nudge in the right direction could help.
Some people believe that such a major Valley-wide initiative could only happen if the municipalities amalgamate. Without allegiances to any individual community, a single governing body could focus on the entire Comox Valley.
But amalgamation presents a set of obstacles no less onerous than a Valley-wide sewerage system.
In the meantime, many failing septic systems in the Union Bay-Royston and Saratoga-Miracle Beach areas trickle untreated liquid waste into our waterways, and the Cumberland system adversely affects the Trent River watershed. The Courtenay-Comox system runs raw sewage through old pipes buried along the K’omoks estuary foreshore and pumps lightly treated wastewater into the Strait of Georgia.
So there’s an immediate benefit, albeit small, to approving the SSP. That plant would at least employ some of the modern technologies for sewage treatment. Its effluent would reach reclaimed water status, but would not be cleaned of pharmaceuticals or nitrates.
But does that advantage warrant spending tens of millions of dollars, putting miles of new pipe in our sensitive marine environment and most likely delaying the ultimate sewerage solution for many more decades?
Whatever voters decide tomorrow will have long-term consequences for all of us.