10/16/2006Near the entrance to Puget Sound, the city of Victoria, B.C., pipes its untreated sewage to the bottom of the sea. But this summer, the British Columbia government ordered Victoria to use something besides ocean currents to treat its waste. To start off our series on the tidal currents of Puget Sound, producer John Ryan went to Victoria to see if dilution is the solution to pollution.
ON VICTORIA'S INNER HARBOUR, HORSE-DRAWN CARRIAGES TAKE TOURISTS PAST THE THE PARLIAMENT BUILDING AND THE EMPRESS HOTEL, WHERE HIGH TEA IS SERVED IN THE BRITISH TRADITION. BUT ABOUT A MILE AWAY IS THE UNDERBELLY, OR PERHAPS THE LARGE INTESTINE, OF THIS PROPER PROVINCIAL CAPITAL.
JIM MCFARLAND MANAGES THE CLOVER POINT WASTEWATER PUMPING STATION. IT'S MOSTLY HIDDEN UNDERGROUND IN A CITY PARK, ON A SMALL PENINSULA THAT JUTS SOUTH TOWARD PORT ANGELES.
MCFARLAND: "This is the main pump room. We have four sewage pumps... "
THE PUMP HOUSE IS FILLED WITH ORANGE AND YELLOW PIPES BIG ENOUGH FOR AN ADULT TO CRAWL THROUGH.
MCFARLAND: "We prescreen the sewage thru six-millimeter screens, or a quarter inch, to take out the large, nonorganic material. After the wastewater is screened, it's pumped through these pumps out to sea."
IN A NUTSHELL, VICTORIA IS THE GENTEEL TOURIST TOWN THAT POOPS IN THE OCEAN.
MCFARLAND: Of the greater Victoria area, about two-thirds of the sewage comes through this station here.
U.S. CITIES ARE REQUIRED TO GIVE "SECONDARY TREATMENT" TO THEIR SEWAGE. THAT MEANS THEY SEPARATE SLUDGE AND GREASE FROM THEIR WASTEWATER, THEN THEY USE MICROORGANISMS TO CONSUME MUCH OF WHAT'S LEFT.
BUT 20 MILES ACROSS THE WATER, GREATER VICTORIA POURS ABOUT 30 MILLION GALLONS A DAY OF RAW SEWAGE INTO THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA. THAT INCLUDES HUMAN WASTE FROM 200 THOUSAND RESIDENTS, AND ALL SORTS OF STUFF THAT GOES DOWN THE DRAIN FROM BUSINESSES, HOMES AND CITY STREETS.
OFFICIALS FROM THE VICTORIA REGION SAY THE PRACTICE POSES LITTLE RISK TO HUMANS OR MARINE LIFE. LAURA TAYLOR IS A BIOLOGIST WITH THE CAPITAL REGIONAL DISTRICT. SHE STANDS ON THE SEAWALL AT CLOVER POINT.
TAYLOR: "From here, there's a long outfall that goes out about 1.1 kilometer offshore. We have very strong tidal currents off of there, off Clover Point, typically in Juan de Fuca Strait, tidal currents up to two knots, and that is very high for such a wide water body."
TAYLOR SAYS THE NATURAL ACTION OF THE TIDES QUICKLY REDUCES POLLUTANTS AND PATHOGENS TO HARMLESS LEVELS.
TAYLOR: "Cold seawater's actually a very good disinfectant."
THE AREA AROUND THE OUTFALL IS OFF-LIMITS TO SHELLFISH HARVESTING BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF FECAL BACTERIA, BUT TAYLOR SAYS THE ECOSYSTEM ON THE SEAFLOOR IS IN GOOD SHAPE.
TAYLOR: "Mussels, scallops, barnacles, encrusting marine life virtually covering every square inch of those rocks. We have done some video, there's no free space basically, it's covered with these organisms."
CRITICS HAVE FILED LAWSUITS, THEY'VE QUESTIONED THE SCIENCE, AND THEY'VE TRIED TO GET TOURISTS TO BOYCOTT VICTORIA. BUT THEY GOT FEW RESULTS UNTIL A TALL, DARK STRANGER APPEARED A COUPLE YEARS AGO.
FLOATIE: "Hidy ho, everybody. I'm Mr. Floatie. (sings) I'm Mr. Floatie, the ocean poo, if you're from Victoria, I'm from you."
MR. FLOATIE IS THE MASCOT OF A GROUP CALLED POOP -- PEOPLE OPPOSED TO OUTFALL POLLUTION. HE'S A SMILING SEVEN-FOOT TURD WITH A SAILOR'S CAP. A WARNING TO LISTENERS: IF YOU CONSIDER PUNS THE LOWEST FORM OF HUMOR, THE FOLLOWING MAY BE OFFENSIVE.
FLOATIE: "Victoria definitely has a smear on its name because, you know, we're using 1850's technology to deal with our sewage."
HE'S THE ALTER EGO OF JAMES SKWAROK, A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA. MR. FLOATIE RAN FOR MAYOR LAST FALL,
FLOATIE: "#2 for #1, that was my campaign slogan."
UNTIL THE CITY SUED TO STOP HIM FROM RUNNING UNDER AN ASSUMED NAME.
BUT HIS POTTY HUMOR PROPELLED SEWAGE INTO THE MEDIA SPOTLIGHT. BEFORE THE RACE, TWO-TERM MAYOR ALAN LOWE PAID LITTLE ATTENTION TO THE ISSUE. NOW HE'S CALLING FOR THE PROVINCIAL AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENTS TO HELP PAY FOR SECONDARY TREATMENT.
LOWE: "As the mayor of the city, I'm not proud of what we do and yes, it has been a black eye for our city."
ON THE OTHER HAND, VANCOUVER ISLAND'S CHIEF PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER, RICHARD STANWICK, WOULD RATHER SEE THOSE MILLIONS SPENT ON NEW HOSPITALS.
STANWICK: "We need to be strategic, the secondary sewage treatment plant will not result in a measurable impact on human health."
FOR ALL THE ATTENTION TO POOP, BOTH SIDES BASICALLY AGREE THAT HUMAN WASTE ISN'T THE REAL PROBLEM. BIOLOGIST JOHN WERRING WORKS FOR THE SIERRA LEGAL DEFENSE FUND.
WERRING: "Every possible chemical contaminant that you can see in any industry in any major city goes down the drain; it all ends up in the sewage. If all we were concerned about was human turds and urine, it probably wouldn't be a problem, because that's essentially a fertilizer."
WERRING SAYS SECONDARY TREATMENT WOULD KEEP 90 PERCENT OF THE TOXIC SUBSTANCES IN SEWAGE OUT OF THE OCEAN. BUT TREATMENT CREATES SLUDGE, AND THAT CAN BE TOXIC TOO. OFFICIALS SAY THAT'S WHY THEY'VE EMPHASIZED KEEPING SUBSTANCES LIKE MERCURY FROM ENTERING SEWERS IN THE FIRST PLACE. GOVERNMENT BIOLOGIST LAURA TAYLOR.
TAYLOR: "Mercury doesn't disappear, it can't be transformed, it's an element, you know? Nothing you can do about it, and it's just as toxic in one place or the other. So the answer's to remove the mercury beforehand."
BY REQUIRING DENTISTS TO KEEP MERCURY FILLINGS FROM GOING DOWN THEIR DRAINS, THE REGION HAS CUT THE MERCURY IN SEWAGE BY TWO-THIRDS.
BUT THIS SUMMER, THE GOVERNMENT'S EXPERT PANEL SAID SOURCE CONTROL IS NOT A LONG-TERM SOLUTION FOR OCEAN-BOUND TOXIC WASTE, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THE REGION'S GROWING POPULATION. IN JULY, BRITISH COLUMBIA'S ENVIRONMENT MINISTER GAVE THE REGION ONE YEAR TO COME UP WITH A TIMETABLE FOR TREATING ITS SEWAGE. ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE PLEASED, BUT THEY'RE NOT HOLDING THEIR BREATH. IT'S BEEN 13 YEARS SINCE OFFICIALS FIRST PROMISED TO TREAT VICTORIA'S SEWAGE.
AND IF THE GOAL IS A CLEANER PUGET SOUND, FOCUSING ON VICTORIA MAY BE MISGUIDED, ACCORDING TO LAURA TAYLOR.
TAYLOR:" There's more Puget Sound sewage here off of Victoria, and Vancouver sewage, than Victoria sewage just because you have much larger populations. "
TAYLOR SAYS VICTORIA'S TWO MAIN OUTFALLS ADD INSIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF THE PCB'S THAT CONTAMINATE OUR REGION'S ORCAS. BUT JOHN WERRING SAYS THAT'S NO EXCUSE.
WERRING: "We have two major sources of pollution right here that can be controlled, you know, instead of killing off the whales and the seals and saying, 'it's not us,' be part of the solution to bringing those animals back to good health."
CANADIAN ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE PUSHING VICTORIA TO TREAT ITS SEWAGE BEFORE THE WINTER OLYMPICS COME TO B.C. IN TWENTY-TEN.
FLOATIE: "Who wants to win a brown medal, right? We want to win gold in B.C., not brown."
IF THEY SUCCEED, MR. FLOATIE COULD BE... AN ENDANGERED FECES.
I'M JOHN RYAN, KUOW NEWS.
FLOATIE: "Hidy Ho, everybody! Don't forget to eat fiber!"
© Copyright 2006, KUOW