After three decades of promises, Victoria, British Columbia, is still pumping raw sewage into shared waters and is nowhere near a treatment solution.
In November, heavy rains hit Vancouver Island, and the beaches in and around Victoria, British Columbia, became health hazards. Storm water and sewage overflowed, which happens in Seattle, too. But in Victoria, it’s a more urgent situation because the metropolitan area of 340,000 citizens doesn’t treat its sewage.
This is not the vision that people have of Victoria, the elegant and proper capital of British Columbia. “Most people, when they visit Victoria and they are told we don’t have sewage treatment, are shocked,” says Jim McIssac, who heads up the T Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation.
Is this story sounding a little familiar? It did to us, too. KCTS has gone to Victoria three times to report on the lack of treatment — first in 1992, and again in 2006 right before the province ordered Victoria to build a sewage treatment plant. We thought it was a done deal, but it wasn’t. Now we’re back!
“The order came down in 2006 to treat our sewage,” says McIssac. “We spent nine years talking about how we are going to do this.”
At the end of those nine years the metro area had sunk about $60 million into planning a project called “Seaterra.” The high-tech treatment plant was slated to be built at the entrance to Victoria’s harbor in Esquimalt. But in 2014, the municipality refused to rezone the land.
“Esquimalt put forward that site as a possible site for sewage treatment,” explains Victoria's mayor, Lisa Helps. “They did it on the understanding that it wouldn’t be one regional plant.” When it became clear that all of Victoria’s sewage was headed to Esquimalt, that’s when the municipality sank Seaterra.
So where does that leave Victoria? Back to square one, pumping about 20 million gallons of raw sewage daily into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. No surprise that Victoria’s royal flush makes it unpopular with some American neighbors, including Washington’s governor. When British Columbia’s government refused to step in and force Victoria to clean up its act, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote B.C. Premiere Christy Clark demanding action. So far, nothing has happened.
Last summer, the Seattle Times wrote a scathing opinion piece that made news on both sides of the border. “The failure is an embarrassment for stately Victoria,” the Seattle Times editorial board said in August. “It undermines the rigorous work to clean up Puget Sound.”
These American protests have not fallen on deaf ears in Canada. One person who listened and jumped into action is James Skwarok, also known as Victoria's poop mascot, Mr. Floatie.
“I can’t believe it. It’s been ten years since you interviewed me!” Skwarok says. “I can’t believe that I’m still wearing this costume! This piece of crap.” He pats the detached, smiling head at his side. “I’m sorry, Mr. Floatie.”
Who exactly is Mr. Floatie? Back in the 2000s, Mr. Floatie surfaced and got a firestorm of publicity because if there is one thing the media can’t resist, it’s a grown man in a poop suit. After British Columbia ordered Victoria to build a plant and Seaterra was on the drawing board, Mr. Floatie retired.
But now that the situation is constipated once again, Mr. Floatie came out of retirement with flair. At Clover Point, one of Victoria’s sewage outfalls, he announced his engagement to another form of ocean pollution: Plastic Bag Princess.
No, we are not making this up. In fact, we were there. If there is anything news outlets like more than a man in a turd suit, it’s a man in a turd suit proposing to a woman in a wedding dress made from hundreds of plastic bags.
In real life, Skwarok is actually a serious fellow. As a teacher he’s worried that the next generation will inherit a Salish Sea that’s beyond repair.
“It’s not just the poop, it’s the chemicals that are the big problem,” Skwarok says. “The hormones, the pharmaceuticals, the microplastics; toxins are accumulating in our marine organisms.”
The agency responsible for sewage, the Capital Regional District, confirms that its testing shows chemicals and bacteria in the effluent that exceed regulations. But the CRD can’t just build a treatment plant. That’s up to the politicians. The difficulty has been getting all the municipalities on the same page.
“There is this weird DNA,” says Mayor Helps. “We’ve got this huge block around sewage treatment and I am hell-bent and determined to take that block out of our way as a community. Because if we can do this, we can do anything as a region.”
Helps, who also chairs the regional sewage committee, is aiming to get a firm plan in place for a sewage treatment plant by spring. The timing is aggressive and not coincidental. There is a pot of federal funding that’s tied to that deadline. Helps is so confident the region can get it done, she is planning a victory lap for Victoria’s most infamous mascot.
“When we have a plan in place I’d like to come down to Seattle with Mr. Floatie and his bride and have a retirement party to show our neighbors in Seattle we are on it,” she says. “Mr. Floatie is no longer needed, he can go happily into retirement.”
Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.
As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in TheaterMore stories by Jenny Cunningham