British Columbia

Wastewater project delay one of several billion-dollar questions facing Metro Vancouver

The final cost of an already delayed wastewater treatment plant in North Vancouver is almost certain to rise from its $1 billion figure after Metro Vancouver said the contractor "abandoned" the project.

The average home will be charged $200 more a year for regional services by 2025 — if budgets are met

A photo taken in the winter of 2021 shows construction underway at the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Acciona)

The final cost of an already delayed wastewater treatment plant in North Vancouver is almost certain to rise from its $1 billion figure after Metro Vancouver said the contractor "abandoned" the project.

"I think there's no doubt that the budget is going to have to change," said Richmond Coun. Alexa Loo, a member of Metro Vancouver's liquid waste committee. 

"We knew it was going to cost. We thought that we had a good project plan in place and clearly we didn't."

The new plant was scheduled to be completed in 2020 for $700 million, but the numbers had already changed to $1 billion in 2023 before Acciona Wastewater Solutions laid off the majority of its workers at the project site.

Metro Vancouver had no further updates on the matter this week and Acciona — which also has contracts with the Millennium Line Skytrain extension to Arbutus and the Pattullo Bridge replacement — has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

But Loo said it showed the risks the regional body would face for future upgrades.

"I think it's very expensive to build a wastewater treatment plant. 

"They require specific architectural abilities to design. It requires somebody who has the ability to do all the building in the construction work ... and there aren't many tradespeople out there doing a lot of work or available for extra work right now."

Big property tax increases to come

Metro Vancouver is the regional government for most of the Lower Mainland, stretching from Bowen Island and Lions Bay to the Langley-Abbotsford border.

While it oversees a diverse range of programs from affordable housing to regional parks, its main responsibility is providing water, liquid waste and solid waste services to the vast majority of the 2.6 million people in the region. 

And much of the infrastructure that underpins those services is due for upgrades. 

Metro Vancouver has budgeted $6 billion in capital spending in the next five years, including the expansion of the treatment plant on Annacis Island, more than a billion dollars for wastewater treatment projects in northwest Langley and the addition and expansion of several water lines.

The biggest project is replacing the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, with the budget forecast this summer at $10.4 billion and construction spread out in several phases over the next 20 years. 

As a result, Metro Vancouver is currently forecasting the cost for the services it provides an average household to rise from $560 in 2020 to $789 in 2025. 

"Our systems need to keep up with the demands of growth and be more resilient to natural disasters and climate change," said Metro Van chair Sav Dhaliwal to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on Tuesday. 

"It's no exaggeration that this is the most significant infrastructure plan in Metro Vancouver's history." 

Metro Vancouver Chair Sav Dhaliwal outlines planned capital expenditures in the region in a presentation to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on Oct. 5, 2021. (Greater Vancouver Board of Trade)

'Balancing the choices'

Loo said another reason for multiple upgrades occurring around the same time are federal requirements to improve the environmental standards of wastewater facilities by certain dates or face penalties. And she wonders whether it's too much for the region to take on at once. 

"You have two big projects [Iona and North Vancouver] that you need done in under nine years. And you don't seem to have a whole pile of capable people that can actually bring that project to fruition," she said. 

Dhaliwal said that Metro Vancouver works to space out spending to ensure that tax increases are close to increases to the overall cost of living. 

But Loo said Metro Vancouver residents should be aware of the size of the budgets — and the potential for overruns.

"The budgets are massive. We're dealing with properties that are many years old, but really don't meet seismic standards. They don't meet current discharge wastewater standards. And we're really trying to care for our fishes and our oceans," she said.

"So it's balancing the choices out."   

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