Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sewage treatment
June 2, 2006

Scientific evidence is anything but absolute, as we’ve learned the hard way over the decades. Science certainly got radiation wrong the first time out, and most recently has failed us utterly around the safety of prescription drugs. Only one thing is for certain: Nothing’s for certain.
So when talk turns to sewage treatment - as it’s bound to every now and then in a community that pumps 47 billion litres of raw sewage into the surrounding ocean every year - you don’t want to be trusting everything to “science.” You just never know.
Sewage treatment was a hot topic when I moved here in 1989. A study (oh, you don’t want to THINK about the studies we’ve paid for) was just wrapping up, and people were talking about whether it might be time to move forward on treatment. While there did seem to be something different about local waters in terms of their ability to rapidly whisk away sewage, public distaste for dumping raw sewage was growing.
That was 17 years ago. Then as now, we are awaiting the findings of a scientific study - the most recent one costing $600,000 and due in July - on the pros and cons of treatment. We’ve come exactly nowhere in the intervening years, and spent a small fortune doing it.
Scientific evidence still prevails as the argument for doing nothing. Those with only a gut feeling that it has to be wrong to dump that much sewage into the ocean have obviously not been enough of a political force to register on anyone’s political radar, because sewage treatment is rarely raised as an issue.
I was horrified when I first learned that my new town dumped its sewage raw into the ocean. I wrote about it furiously for a while in my days of reporting on the Capital Regional District, but eventually moved on. Like almost everybody else, I soon forgot that I was once outraged.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to town last week promising money for sewage treatment, and praise be to Victoria and Langford mayors Alan Lowe and Stew Young for making it clear that they’d like to talk.
“You might as well jump at it when money is available,” Lowe told local media after Harper’s visit. “Even if some people believe what we’re doing right now works, it’s still not going to be good enough for the future.”
He’s right - one of these days, we’re going to have treatment. So what are we waiting for? The price will always seem unbearable, but we’ll live. And at least it will be spent on action, not more study.
Fierce debate is inevitable whenever we talk sewage treatment, of course. Those versed in current scientific evidence around the special churning action of our waters are passionate and well-informed, as evidenced by numerous heated exchanges on this issue over the years.
But science doesn’t explain everything. Nor does it always get things right. Ever seen that old footage of the poor sots at the first nuclear-test sites in the U.S., mugging for the camera while brushing radiation dust off themselves with brooms?
No doubt it’s true that our ocean currents disperse raw sewage really well. But that’s not to say that our dumping habits aren’t having an impact. Forty-seven billion litres of untreated human waste a year simply has to have an impact.
As Chamber of Commerce chairman Robin Adair noted last week, “The optics outweigh any other consideration.” There’s an economic price to being one of the last cities in Canada still dumping raw sewage into the ocean. We don’t need that kind of reputation, especially not in a wealthy and fabulously beautiful region that can actually afford to treat its sewage.
In 1993, former federal cabinet minister David Anderson described sewage treatment for Greater Victoria as a “sheer waste of money and an exercise in woolly, soggy-minded thinking.” He said he’d be surprised if the federal government would ever lend an inch of land, an hour of time or “a dollar of our money” to the cause.
Times have changed, and so should we. What was right yesterday - a garbage scow dumping local waste into the ocean, for instance - isn’t necessarily right forever. And if the goal is to tread lightly on this earth, 47 billion litres of raw sewage is surely over the line.
Money needn’t be the stumbling block. Treatment won’t break the bank if all levels of government ante up, and it seems as though the stars may be aligning on that point. As Alan Lowe pointed out, the time is now.
More than 400 articles and letters on sewage treatment have run in the Times-Colonist in the last 15 years. But few cut to the chase better than the letter from a young West Langley Elementary student to the region back in 1993: “I think your idea of throwing raw sewage in the ocean is horrible.”

1 comment:

Keith said...

I am impressed with your support for PEERS and with the personal commitment you made in participating in the Tour de Rock. Less so with your article on secondary sewage treatment. The following quote is where we part company:

"Science certainly got radiation wrong the first time out .... you don’t want to be trusting everything to “science.” You just never know."

Nice sounding argument, and the pivot point for your article - but logically wrong. Science didn't get "radiation wrong" - decision makers did by using science to get the parts they liked (nice, big explosions) and going with belief the rest of the way (the extent to which they bothered). Pointing out flaws in how science was misused by the military in WW2 is a poor argument for abandoning it.

Here is a definition for science that I like:
"The scientific method is the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.

Recognizing that personal and cultural beliefs influence both our perceptions and our interpretations of natural phenomena, we aim through the use of standard procedures and criteria to minimize those influences when developing a theory. As a famous scientist once said, "Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view." In summary, the scientific method attempts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory."

To paraphrase, smart journalists, like smart lawyers, can come up with attractive sounding explanations for mistaken points of view. (That would be your article.)

Actually, I do want to trust this to science. While it is true that science will never be absolute, when applied properly over time, the scientific method generates better decisions and improved results. Like democracy it is not perfect, but it has the benefit of being better than all of the other options.

Contrary to your statement, scientific evidence still prevails as the argument for continuing to do the right thing.

Without science, you may feel comfortable in your beliefs, but you will never KNOW.