OP-ED: Money for treatment plant not in bank yet

Former Victoria MP and federal cabinet minister David Anderson weighs in on treatment plant funding

Federal cabinet minister James Moore came to Victoria last week to announce the federal contribution to the Capital Regional District’s proposed on-land artificial wastewater treatment plant.

The media gave the announcement extensive coverage, as it should, but behind the hoopla is the nagging question: what did Moore add to the similar promise made by Prime Minister Harper a year ago?  And will the money actually come our way?

Moore was more precise than the prime minister. First, there is now an upper dollar limit to the federal taxpayers’ contribution. It now stands at $253 million, with local taxpayers responsible for any cost overruns.

Second, it is clear that this contribution to the capital costs of wastewater treatment will be counted as part of the federal expenditures in British Columbia on infrastructure.

In other words, the amount of the contribution will be counted against any federal money that otherwise would come to this province for rapid transit, new bridges, convention facilities and other major capital works.

This is not additional money.

If British Columbia gets this $253 million, the province will get $253 million less for other infrastructure projects.

But while adding precision, Moore laid down conditions. Specifically he made it clear that the project would have to be approved by the federal Treasury Board, and that it would be subject to federal environmental assessments.

These conditions seem reasonable enough, but their effect may yet be road blocks to a federal financial contribution.

Consider the requirement for Treasury Board approval. The role of Treasury Board is to ensure “efficiency, effectiveness, and ongoing value for money.” Treasury Board approval will require a detailed cost/benefit analysis of the project, a detailed examination of the disadvantages and advantages of the project and an evaluation of alternative ways of achieving the objectives by some other means – including the existing natural system that is in place today.

If Treasury Board does its usual thorough job, the CRD plan is unlikely to pass the test.

No detailed cost/benefit analysis for example, has yet been done. If Treasury Board experts do one, the results are unlikely to favour what the CRD is proposing.

The second off-ramp that could derail the federal financial contribution is the federal environmental assessment. The CRD has declared that the current system is detrimental to our local waters and the proposed system will improve the quality of the local marine environment. But the claim is just that, a claim. It has not been supported by independent studies, the majority of which say exactly the opposite.

Further, it is contradicted by 10 University of Victoria experts in the fields of oceanography, marine biology and engineering, who took the unusual step of signing a letter pointing out that on balance, there are no net environmental benefits from the proposal.

Equally damaging to the CRD case is that six current and former public health officers for the area have publicly pointed out that in their expert judgment, there are, on balance, no net health benefits from the proposal.

In fact, since details of the plan have been put forward, it has become clear that the greenhouse gas impact of the proposal is substantial, and other environmental and even health impacts are more significant than anticipated. Once again, on environmental and health grounds, the current system appears to be substantially superior to what is being proposed, a fact that a serious federal environmental impact assessment will almost certainly demonstrate.

Of course, the federal cabinet could change the rules yet again, and provide the money regardless of environmental impact or of a cost/benefit analysis. But don’t count on it.

At present, the federal contribution to the CRD’s proposed on-land wastewater treatment system appears a long way from being in the bank.

Former Victoria MP David Anderson served for 10 years in the federal cabinet of Jean Chrétien, when he was a member of Treasury Board and the minister responsible for the Environmental Assessment Agency.  He was also the minister responsible for the Infrastructure Program in British Columbia.

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