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Victoria's Royal Flush: Lack of Sewage Treatment Still Creating a Cross-Border Stink

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.

Tourists love Victoria’s old-world charm but are unaware that the capital of British Columbia does not treat its sewage.

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. 

Raw sewage in Victoria is pumped out deep into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

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.

The ring bearer at Mr. Floatie’s engagement party finds the festivities a little frightening.

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.”

Modern testing reveals a cocktail of toxins in sewage water. Many chemicals would be removed if the sewage were treated.

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.”

Victoria’s mayor, who is also head of the sewage committee, is working hard to get a new plan in place for a treatment plant by spring of 2016. That deadline is tied to a pot of federal funds that could help Victoria pay for sewage treatment.

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.”



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Made possible in part by

Jenny Cunningham

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 Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

There are 16 comments

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Victoria already has adequate, low-risk environmentally-sustainable marine-based sewage treatment but your story ignores the marine scientists who resist the charge to a higher-risk land based sewage plant system. Over several years, marine scientists and engineers have published their viewpoint supporting our current marine-based sewage treatment system but such media stunts as "Mr Floatie" just capture credulous reporters such as Jenny Cunningham, Joel Connelly and others who ignore evidence-based information that the marine scientists present. To balance your one-sided story, readers should consider the marine scientists' perspective at http://www.rstv.ca

Is that like "sky-based treatment" for airborne pollutants? Call it what it is: Non-treatment.

The opening statement in your video on Victoria needs to be qualified. If Victoria has a problem, it is one of perception. Marine science and monitoring have confirmed time & again that Victoria's method of marine wastewater treatment is very effective. Natural dilution by a cold, highly oxygenated & fast flowing current, ensure that Victoria does NOT have a problem. Nor does the surrounding marine environment. Dr. Shaun Peck is correct. Only a few hundred meters from the outfalls, Victoria's effluent is no longer detectable. The idea that bacteria from Victoria's outfalls ends up on U.S. shorelines is preposterous. It is also unlikely that the detection of fecal coli form on Victoria's on shorelines originates from the outfalls. A land based treatment system would generate new problems, including increased Green House Gas emissions that would contribute to ocean acidification.
This whole issue continues to be propagated by misinformation and the resulting political pressure to do something about a problem that doesn't exist.

It is understandable that Mr.Floaty doesn't understand the debate surrounding wastewater treatment in Victoria - he doesn't have a brain (being a turd and all), but luckily in Victoria, we are blessed with a highly specialized team of real humans, including marine scientists, wastewater treatment engineers and professional health inspectors who can provide us with facts instead of theatre.

Unfortunately, the "no-brains" approach seems to be highly contagious as it has sadly now apparently spread to both the local newspaper and TV media people.

It is a basic journalism 101 tenet that reporters should at least make some effort to verify the facts in a story they are disseminating to their readers/viewers - sadly this is just never done when reporting this issue either in the U.S. or in Canada.

A review of the facts will clearly demonstrate that Victoria's wastewater is in fact treated, that the environmental impact is immeasurable within 10's of meters of the end of the wastewater pipe and there has never been any issues of human or marine mammal illness associated with the operation of this world class treatment facility - ever.

I just hope that those individuals that have been a little to close to Mr. Floaty have access to good, socialized health care so they can get their brains checked.

I have a lot of respect for PBS, but you have really missed the mark on this article

Whenever somebody tells me they plan to go to Victoria, I tell them that we Washingtonians should all be boycotting Victoria. I am surprised to learn how few people know about the raw sewage. I love British Columbia and go there often, but I will not go to Victoria until they are treating their sewage.

In fact it is we Victorians who should be boycotting Washington State for the misinformation they've allowed their entertainment trumps information media to spread. Unmentioned is the fact that, in 1982, we spent $175 million dollars on an organic sewage system which world-class engineers and marine scientists designed and built for us. It amazes me that Jenny Cunningham is either so lazy and negligent or so malevolent to produce this piece of fiction. It's an example of how television can be used to distort facts. It reminds me of the work of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi film maker of the 1930s without any artistic merit attached. I hope that Canadians (30% of kcps's market) will not donate to kcps because of this. I intend to report this to the FCC.

With the EPA breathing down our throats, it seems Canada would understand the toxins they are releasing are killing not only their inviroment, but the surrounding areas of Puget Sound and surrounding water including the ocean. These toxins are also feeding the red tides that now hampers the entire west coast of the United States. Canada is killing our fish and shell fish environment with their crap!

Your ignorance of the fact that Victoria's sewage is treated organically --- we paid $175 million for an organic system completed in 1982 --- is reflected in your spelling of the word "environment". Check with the marine scientists at your own University of Washington and you will find that waters flow out of Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean -- not vice versa. KCTS 9 has grossly misinformed you --- it has tried to entertain you with Mr. Floatie and his Halloween costume rather than doing decent research and properly informing you. It has ended up slandering a friendly neighbour.

This is pathetic and primitive. They should be fined everyday that they dump raw sewage into the Strait of Juan De Fuca! Wake up Victoria its 2015. People harvest seafoods from the Strait. This is sickening!

For more than twenty years voices from Washington state (journalists, including the editorial board of the Seattle Times and PBS as well as elected officials including Governors) have from time to time tried to pour shame on Victoria for not building land-based sewage treatment plants. It is suggested that Victoria’s sewage is contaminating Puget Sound or the San Juan Islands, which is absurd and not supported by the facts.
Dr. Andrea Copping from the Marine Science Laboratory of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State has clearly shown that the net flow of sea water from the Victoria bight travels out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the Canadian coast line to the open sea. There is no evidence that the water flows anywhere near the entrance to Puget Sound.
Victoria’s present practice is to screen our sewage and then dispose of it through two deep sea outfalls. It is called preliminary treatment. The engineer designed outfalls are more than one kilometer (0.6 of a mile) from the shoreline with 200 meter (600 feet) diffusers. They are also 60 meters (96 feet) below the ocean surface. Many studies by the Capital Regional District (Regional Government) have shown that this practice has a minimal impact on the marine environment and the plume cannot be detected 400 meters (1300 feet) from the end of the outfalls. It is not dumped – a term often used by those who believe we need land based sewage treatment plants.
Washington State should continue to clean up its own backyard rather than provide shaming rhetorical and inaccurate comments about Victoria’s sewage disposal practices.
According to scientific studies People for Puget Sound report that - 549 streams, rivers and lakes across the Puget Sound region are impaired by poor water quality. Harbor seals in Puget Sound are seven times more contaminated with the persistent toxic chemicals known as PCBs than those living in Canada’s Strait of Georgia, which adjoins the Sound. 14 Million Pounds of toxic chemicals enter Puget Sound waters annually. On an average day, it’s estimated that 140,000 pounds of toxic chemicals – including petroleum, copper, lead, zinc and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – enter Puget Sound.
Due to 20th century industrial contamination, the lower 5 miles of the Duwamish canal in Seattle, that drains into Puget Sound has been declared a Superfund site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The contaminants include PCBs, PAHs, mercury, and phthalates.
In the Hood Canal, a fjord off Puget Sound there is hypoxia, a low-oxygen condition, is occurring due to oxygen absorbing pollutants (such as sewage) and lack of tidal flushing.
Victoria’s Capital Regional District has, on the other hand, a world-class, highly effective sewage-source control program that eliminates many chemicals of concern. There have been many studies showing that the present practice has only a minimal effect on the marine environment. Improvements in drainage is occurring to prevent storm water from contaminating the beaches. We do not have industrial contamination and runoff such as that which occurs from the Duwamish Canal and other sources in Puget Sound.

As Victoria’s sewage treatment planning continues the Regional Government is trying to come up with a plan to satisfy the regulators. They should however, consider challenging the Canadian Federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, such as by a judicial review or an appeal to the Canadian Federal Court of the scientific basis for taking a “one size fits all” approach in the regulations. This approach was successful in San Diego under U.S. laws.

The waiver would be based on the many studies showing the current practice of discharging the screened sewage through two deep-sea outfalls has a minimal impact on Victoria’s unique marine environment. In spite of the rhetoric and misinformation from Washington state, this should be pursued, if it appears that the current planning results in an unaffordable burden on taxpayers for no clear benefit to the overall environment — land, marine and global.
Why build land based sewage treatment plants and spend millions of taxpayer dollars when credible Marine Scientists and Public Health officials have shown convincingly that they are not needed? Just because our neighbours in Washington State keep presenting misinformation and believe that it is necessary? If decisions are not based on the best science and evidence a great deal of public funds get wasted.
Shaun Peck, MA, MB, BChir, FRCPC trained as a Public Health Physician and was the Capital Regional District’s medical health officer from 1989 to 1995.

You must all realize that Victoria's shit don't stink and now they want you to believe it doesn't pollute either. In my opinion it all steams from the fact nobody want's to pay the added costs so we will all be slowly poisoned for the sake of a few dollars a year in taxes.

Your so called leaders have failed you and should be held accountable- should prosecuted for crimes against the environment for not taking action to stop this immoral disgusting practice. Residents should be marching in the streets protesting instead of participating in this apathy & ignorance.

Most of us know how tides come in and out of Puget Sound through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Most of us also know that we here in Washington do not have an outlet such as the Strait of Georgia along the coast of British Columbia where water flows constantly back into the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles north of Victoria. We have a dead end in the southern Puget Sound where red tide is altogether to common and happening over and over again at an alarming rate. I question much of the red tide is a direct result of Victoria's pollution outflow. Years ago when my father attended the U of BC, he collected Norris cartoons depicting Victoria's pollution outflow as something ridiculous far back as 1953! Victoria has failed again and again to produce a viable alternative to the current sewage outflow. When is the right time?

You won't find much, but Victoria's landfill leaches directly into the ocean! What's going on up there? It's not right to throw your garbage on to your neighbors. Get your act together Victoria your beauty is starting to smell.

Boycott Victoria! I have for the last 10 years. Tell Mayor Lisa Helps at http://www.rstv.ca Too bad the Southern Resident Orcas can't email the Mayor to tell her how charming Victorias "plume" is to swim through with their fragile young.

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As a public media organization, KCTS 9 is committed to presenting a diversity of voices and perspectives through the stories we produce. We invite our readers to participate in an active and respectful discourse through our comments feature. All comments are moderated before posting to our website; if we deem a comment to be inappropriate and/or threatening, it will not be published.