British Columbia

Long-awaited, long-debated new wastewater plant ends Victoria's dumping of untreated sewage

The lack of wastewater treatment before the $775-million facility opened Dec. 15 attracted international criticism and threats of tourism boycotts.

Lack of treatment before $775M facility opened sparked international criticism, threats of tourism boycotts

'We are doing what probably should have been happening for a long time before today,' said Capital Regional District Chair Colin Plant after the $775-million project came online. (Capital Regional District)

After decades of debate, delay and denunciations, the Capital Regional District this week officially ended the practice of releasing untreated sewage directly into the ocean near Victoria.

Four years of construction and several weeks of testing on the McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Esquimalt, B.C., were completed just in time to meet the federal government requirement for a functioning facility before the end of 2020.

Colin Plant, the CRD chair and a Saanich district councillor, expressed pride over the successful startup of the treatment plant on Dec. 15.

"We are now able to say to the public that we are treating our wastewater," Plant said in an interview with CBC On the Island host Gregor Craigie. 

"What is being discharged into the ocean is the cleanest water this region has ever put into the ocean that we would call our wastewater," Plant said. 

The $775-million project will cost about $50 million a year to operate, including financing costs for the CRD's $316-million share of the development, Plant said. 

One economic advantage to the expense could be the end of campaigns calling for tourists to boycott Victoria over its dubious distinction as — according to the regional government itself — the last major coastal community in North America to dispose of untreated sewage into the marine environment.

The McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant officially began operating on Dec. 15. (Capital Regional District )

"We are doing tertiary treatment, three phases of treatment, and we are doing what probably should have been happening for a long time before today," Plant said. "But we are finally there." 

The process will remove microplastics, fine particulates and most pharmaceuticals from the waste stream, he said.

Previously, raw sewage was passed through a six-millimetre screen to remove solids, then released into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at an outlet near Victoria's Clover Point. 

Environmental campaigns, including one with a mascot called Mr. Floatie, tried to pressure officials to build a wastewater treatment plant. Mr. Floatie would speak to tourists visiting Victoria about where the city's sewage was ending up. (Chat Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The announcement package for the official launch included a recorded video call with B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been critical of the province's lag in addressing Victoria's sewage situation. 

"As a born and raised Victorian I've been contributing to this problem my entire adult life and I'm happy to say I'm not doing that anymore," Horgan told Inslee. 

Inslee responded: "I was wondering why the water looked so clean in front of my house on Bainbridge [Island]."

The project's $775-million cost was split between the federal government ($211 million), the B.C. government ($248 million) and the CRD ($316 million). 

Efforts to bring sewage treatment to Greater Victoria stretch back decades. Some important years in the timeline include:

  • 1992: CRD voters oppose a primary or secondary sewage treatment system in a non-binding regional referendum.
  • 1998: An advisory committee is appointed by the CRD to revive the issue and make recommendations.
  • 2000: The CRD is called upon to submit a 25-year sewage treatment plan to the B.C. environment minister. 
  • 2008: B.C.'s minister of the environment orders the CRD to start treating its raw sewage.
  • 2010: The environment minister issues a new ultimatum, calling for details of the treatment plan by late spring.
  • 2012: New federal regulations require the CRD to have a treatment plant up and running by the end of 2020.
  • 2014: McLoughlin Point is rejected unanimously by Esquimalt council for rezoning as the site for a wastewater treatment facility. 
  • 2016: McLoughlin Point is approved as the site for the wastewater treatment project after being selected for a second time by a provincially appointed project board, with a smaller footprint and landscape improvements. 

With files from CBC Radio On the Island