Counterpoint: Lessons in civic engagement

It is hard to believe I find myself writing about sewage treatment in Powell River yet again.

City of Powell River council and a group of Townsite residents, called PR Groundswell, are at odds over a planned plant at the south end of the old golf course. Powell River is not alone in the sewage decision cause (witness Victoria’s ongoing battles), but that does not make it any easier.

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The previous council (2011 to 2014) pursued the path of having Catalyst Paper Corporation take over treatment of the city’s sewage, even though if Catalyst went bankrupt or simply closed down we would have had no option but to pump raw sewage into Malaspina Strait.

Due to the huge size of Catalyst’s treatment plant, consulting engineers Dayton and Knight told the city it could not be retrofitted practically. A 1200-name petition, city-sponsored open houses and the city’s own citizen advisory committee overwhelmingly rejected privatization. It had no effect.

In its early application to Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), the city claimed it had consulted with the public and formally chosen the co-treatment option. It had done neither. UBCM turned the city down flat.

Even that did not convince the old council. It was only with the election of a new council, with three new councillors, that the Catalyst option was finally put to rest by a majority vote.

At this stage in the development of the city’s sewage plan, there was just one option left on the table: a consolidated plant treating all of Powell River’s sewage, and Tla'amin Nation's, located on the site of the old golf course.

This was sent to the provincial environment department for approval in June 2015 and received approval one year later.

It is worth noting that a plan to build a plant at the old waste-transfer site, approved in 2004 by council and the province, was abandoned in 2008 when councillors, led by now-mayor Dave Formosa, began promoting the Catalyst option.

There was no further public consultation on proceeding with the consolidated plant because, according to the established process, formal consultations had already taken place.

Those who still wanted to see the plant placed at the waste-transfer site, or pursue General Electric’s offer to refurbish the Westview plant, would have had to intervene right after co-treatment had been rejected, but perhaps exhausted from the previous debate about co-treatment, no one did.

So where does that leave concerned Townsite residents and council? The land for the plant has already been purchased and the province has approved the overall plan. The city’s window for applying for federal and provincial grants will soon close.

The transformation of the waste-transfer site into a resource-recovery centre is already scheduled, funded by a $6-million grant.

In terms of visual impact and odour control of the new plant, nothing has been written in stone and councillors say they are committed to responding to Townsite concerns. They need to make that commitment rock solid. It’s all about resident engagement.

Both sides could have done better regarding the treatment plant. Council should have been more proactive regarding the obvious concerns around the location and residents could have expressed their concerns earlier.

The silver lining, according to councillor Rob Southcott, is the renewed interest in what happens to the rest of the golf course land. There is now a real opportunity to get civic engagement right on how future development can enhance the appeal of Townsite, our heritage neighbourhood.

Murray Dobbin is a Powell River freelance writer and social commentator.

Copyright © 2018 Powell River Peak


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