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Press Centre

Move carefully on sewage plant

Even supporters of sewage treatment should be troubled by the latest developments on the megaproject.

Capital rightly, at the provincial government's attempt to sharply Regional District directors have balked, limit municipal politicians' ability to ensure their communities' interests are protected as the project goes ahead. The directors have asked for legitimate changes to balance decision-making power and protect citizens' interests.

The CRD, after all, will cover not only one-third of the costs, budgeted at $783 million, but 100 per cent of overruns. Local taxpayers will pay the treatment system's operating costs.

And communities will live with the waste-treatment plant at the entrance to Victoria's harbour, sewage facilities in Haro Woods in Saanich and many kilometres of pipelines.

Community Minister Ida Chong says project management must be turned over to a seven-person commission of unelected experts. A CRD report found the approach will "effectively delegate all responsibility to the commission."

There are sound arguments for ensuring the project is managed by people with the required skills and experience. And regional politicians would still have a say on budget and the "esthetic guidelines for above-ground structures."

But given the significance of the megaproject, CRD directors - representing the public interest - should be on the commission. No homeowner would do a renovation and simply cede all decisions to the contractor; no corporation would launch a capital project and accept a contract that precluded its involvement during construction.

The provincial government argues, rightly, that handing the process over to independent managers is efficient. But that efficiency can be at the expense of other publicinterest considerations. The managers running the Canada Line expansion in Vancouver, for example, chose construction methods that were less expensive, but devastating for businesses along the route. That decision deserved, at least, political consideration to balance the needs of all taxpayers.

The management approach to the project is not the only issue. The project is to be fast-tracked, and while unreasonable delays are not in the public interest, neither is excessive haste.

Rezoning for the underground tanks in Saanich East, for example, is forecast to take about seven months. But the University of Victoria's plans for a parkade have already been working through the rezoning process for almost a year, reflecting the need to consult and balance community interests.

Again, needless delays result in higher costs. But in the case of the McLoughlin Point treatment plant, for example, the structure will define the approach to Victoria's harbour for the rest of this century. It's worth the time to get it right.

The debate over whether to treat sewage is effectively over. A pivotal 2006 scientific report - flawed as it was - found seabed contamination at the waste outfalls and identified health risks from sewage plumes that rise to the surface. Claims that the waste is an environmental threat could not be refuted, the scientific panel found. And both federal and provincial governments have ordered treatment.

But this is the largest infrastructure project in the region's history. It will affect everything from tourism to property values to taxes for a generation, at least.

Citizens, through elected representatives, must have a key role as the project moves forward, and there must be political accountability for decisions.

While the need to proceed efficiently is real, that should not be at the expense of careful consideration of the long-term best interests of the region.

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist