British Columbians Raise a Stink About Untreated Sewage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AUTOMOBILE license plates justly proclaim this Canadian province to be "Beautiful British Columbia." But an environmental group, venturing into the azure waters surrounding the province's largest city, has found something foul below the surface and is raising a stink about it.

Untreated sewage is seeping daily out of Vancouver's storm drainage system into downtown waterways, in violation of a longstanding federal fish-protection law, alleges the Save Georgia Strait Alliance.

Videotapes and other documentation in hand, the group took its case to court on Wednesday against the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), which handles the area's sewage.

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Each day more than 200 million gallons of sewage is pumped into Georgia Strait, a roughly 150-mile channel between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which runs between the Island and Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. Most of this sewage, including that from Vancouver and provincial capital Victoria, has had only primary treatment, which includes straining out solids and adding chlorine to kill bacteria.

Some of the waste - the focus of the lawsuit - is getting no treatment at all, but is carried with storm runoff through the city's "combined sewer overflow" system and out into waters plied by kayakers and fish. Environmentalists have focused their research on one overflow area in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet where raw sewage appears to be spewing daily, not just on rainy days.

The Save Georgia Strait Alliance, founded in 1990, says that by the GVRD's own figures, such discharges amount to more than 16 billion gallons a year. But agency spokesman Russ Black says the total output of the combined sewer overflows is less than 10 billion gallons a year, the vast majority of it storm runoff.

Still, Mr. Black acknowledges that the overflows are "a priority for the GVRD. We're not ducking that."

In 1980, the agency recommended construction of storage facilities to contain sewage overflow so it could be treated. But the city has proceeded at such a slow rate that it will take 70 years to complete the project, says Miranda Holmes of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

In apparent acknowledgment that the issue needs to be dealt with, the British Columbia Attorney General's office moved Wednesday to take over the prosecution from the Alliance, which was represented in court by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund.

"We trust they will pursue the prosecution as rigorously as we would have done," Ms. Holmes says.

The law in question is a vague decades-old fisheries act that prohibits depositing deleterious substances into water frequented by fish. Holmes says the question is not so much whether a guilty verdict will be reached as what sentence is imposed: a slap on the wrist or a mandate for change.

A fishermen's union has lined up with the Alliance, warning that vital salmon runs could be lost if the problem is not fixed.

How to do the fixing is another hot debate. One way would be to build secondary treatment systems for the region's sewage, which would remove some harmful chemicals and speed the pace of controlling the storm overflows. But Holmes says this effort would be unduly expensive and would not solve the problem.

Efforts to add secondary treatment were voted down in a Victoria referendum last November, in part because the costly project was to be financed in only five years. Vancouver, meanwhile, is trying to find $375 million to upgrade two treatment plants along the Fraser River, home to important salmon runs.

Holmes recommends an approach that parts company with traditional civil engineering, and which she says would be more effective and economical: a campaign to reduce the chemical wastes dumped by households and businesses into the sewage and storm-sewer systems. Human waste, the Alliance says, could be devoured by microbes, solar energy, plants, fish, and snails in a series of artificial wetlands.

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