For years, the British Columbia capital of Victoria has dumped tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage every day into the waters separating Washington state and Vancouver Island.
The resulting bad publicity stood in contrast to the city of prim and proper homes, shops, gardens and tea rooms worthy of its royal namesake. Victoria promotes itself as a tourist center, a gateway to the wilderness forests and rugged marine coast of Vancouver Island.
But both Victoria and Vancouver, 70 miles away, hope the bad image over the sewage is about to go away as Vancouver prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Regional politicians last week approved a $1.2 billion plan to build four treatment plants to handle about 34 million gallons of raw sewage that Victoria and six suburbs pump into the Strait of Juan de Fuca each day. The strait separates the island from Washington's Olympic Peninsula and leads to Puget Sound. The city and suburbs are home to about 300,000 people.
"Victoria's reputation has been tarnished by our sewage treatment," said Dean Fortin, who became Victoria's mayor last fall. "This is our opportunity to move forward."
Environmentalists say untreated sewage contains toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other contaminants that pollute waters and harm aquatic life. But others in the Victoria area say the risks are minimal and that the costs of waste treatment far exceed the benefits.
The sewage has been an ongoing saga in the region over the years. Efforts to shame politicians into adopting sewage treatment were marked by a humorous yet failed attempt by Mr. Floatie — the brown-clad mascot for People Opposed to Outfall Pollution, better known as POOP — to run for mayor of Victoria.
Finally, in 2006, the British Columbia government ordered the Victoria area to develop a sewage treatment plan after an independent report commissioned by the area's municipalities concluded that relying on water dilution and tidal currents was "not a long-term answer to waste disposal."
The province also released a report that found contamination of the seabed at outfalls, where the sewer pipes drain.
"Since then, it's been, 'How do we move ahead?'" said Andy Orr, a spokesman for Capital Regional District, the government for 13 municipalities on the southern end of Vancouver Island.
Last week, the capital district's sewage committee voted to build four plants in Esquimalt, Saanich East, the West Shore and Clover Point, Victoria. The province ordered the plants to be online by 2016, Orr said.
Sewage from the Victoria area currently is screened for solid objects larger than about a quarter-inch, but it isn't treated beyond that. The wastewater is pumped out of two outfalls that run about 213 feet deep and about a mile into the strait.
Some believe the plants will do little good. "There's no measurable public health risks," said Dr. Shaun Peck, a former CRD medical health officer and member of Responsible Sewage Treatment Victoria, citing monitoring studies of the sites.
But environmentalists believe it's important to take a stand against sewage now.
"We're slowly, along with other pressures, changing what's happening in our environment," said Christianne Wilhelmson, with the Georgia Strait Alliance, which has pushed for sewage treatment for years. "Once you cross that line, it's going to be too late."