SEWAGE IN THE CRD: Esquimalt takes an uneasy second look at McLoughlin

Scaled-down site would take western flows only; Viewfield site surplus

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins at Saxe Point.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins at Saxe Point.

Nearly two years ago, the citizens of Esquimalt spoke loud and clear – McLoughlin Point was not the appropriate site for the Capital Regional District’s $783-million sewage treatment plant.

Esquimalt councillors were met with a standing ovation when they not only rejected the shoreline site, but unanimously slammed the door on any future proposals.

Despite the closed door, the CRD put McLoughlin back on the table due to the cost and disruption of alternatives. This time, however, it’s not being considered as the sole site for a treatment plant, but part of a two-facility solution that also includes Victoria’s Clover Point and allows for a future site on the West Shore. A DND-owned section of Macaulay Point is part of the recommendation, but only as an alternative to McLoughlin.

Given the history, the move to revisit McLoughlin didn’t sit well with Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, but now she’s in favour of moving ahead with the new plan to see how council will respond. She also wants to hear from the private sector, which may propose lower cost and more environmentally friendly solutions.

“With me or without me, the committee was going to have brought forward a site at McLoughlin, no matter what Esquimalt had said. There was nothing I could say that would have made any difference and that’s frustrating,” said Desjardins. “I am hearing from residents that there is an opportunity, given the right circumstances, to reconsider. I think the fact that it is not a single site option is really part of that discussion.”

Surrounded by Department of National Defence (DND) property, the CRD-owned McLoughlin site is a barren, fenced-off piece of land in an otherwise treed area, hiding it from public view except from the water. There are a few nearby homes used by DND personnel, but otherwise the site — a former oil tank farm — is isolated. It’s also located around the corner from the Macaulay Point outfall.

Residents take wait-and-see attitude

Nick Kovacs, chairman of the Esquimalt Resident’s Association, was surprised to see McLoughlin thrown back into the mix. Citizens are concerned, he noted, but are waiting to see what’s in the details this time around.

“If you build a modern facility, then McLoughlin Point makes sense. It’s away from the community, it’s an industrial site – what else are you going to build there?” said Kovacs, who favours tertiary treatment using a distributed model.

“If certain conditions are met, I would feel much more comfortable, but again, the devil is in the details.”

In 2008, Esquimalt began lobbying the CRD to explore a potential sewage treatment facility at McLoughlin Point rather than Macaulay Point. The following year, however, council pulled its support from McLoughlin and advised the CRD to explore other alternatives.

Nonetheless, the CRD moved ahead on the project, and later purchased a property on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt for $17 million as a potential site for biosolids processing. The McLoughlin Point site was bought from Imperial Oil for $4.6 million.

But in a second round of public hearings in March 2014, more than 100 residents from Esquimalt, Saanich, Victoria and elsewhere in the region spoke against the project, citing concerns with the size and environmental impact.

A few weeks later council rejected rezoning the site, noting the CRD failed to deliver requested information such as details on First Nations consultations, committee meeting minutes and an independent tsunami report.

The CRD was forced to go back to the drawing board, but first appealed to the province to mandate the rezoning of McLoughlin Point. The province refused to meddle in the ongoing sewage saga, even though about $60 million had been spent.

Now, however, the province has agreed to help facilitate the process in order to move the project forward, but the McLoughlin site still needs a green light from the municipality for that to happen.

Mayor says past experience unfairly painted Esquimalt residents

In looking back, Desjardins feels there was a lack of respect for the community and that residents still don’t trust the CRD. McLoughlin had been offered as a proactive solution, she explained, with residents seeing it as an opportunity for a possible distributed model with multiple plants. But the CRD sewage committee, basing its decision on staff recommendations, went with a centralized plant there instead.

“From there on, it was all about ‘that’s going to happen, you better accept it and by the way we’re not going to give you any mitigation,’” Desjardins said. “Had they done it differently, had they listened to the community and what the needs were, I really believe that process might have ended up differently.

“The reality is, it was off the rails long before we made the decision, and that was because of the lack of working with a community … Esquimalt has never been NIMBY and yet it’s painted as NIMBY. It’s always been about ‘let’s get the best solution.’”

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