After more than two decades of wrangling, an environmental dispute between Washington state and Victoria, B.C., might be about to hit the fan.
The issue is that Victoria, a provincial capital that has a metropolitan population of 345,000, refuses to treat its wastewater. Instead, the city pours its waste into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the body of water that sits between Canada’s Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Considering that Port Angeles lies 25 miles from Victoria, that amounts to a lot of waste — about 34 million gallons of raw sewage each day — being dumped on Washington’s doorstep.
Canada long has been a congenial neighbor to the United States and to Washington, but Victoria’s actions regarding wastewater are positively primeval. The notion of dumping untreated sewage into a marine ecosystem should be anathema to a civilized and environmentally aware nation, particularly when it impacts a neighboring country.
Last year, plans to build a treatment facility in the municipality of Esquimalt fell through when that city declined to issue a necessary permit, and the provincial government chose to not press the issue. Now, plans have been rekindled to build a treatment plant or a network of small facilities, and the Canadian national and British Columbia provincial governments have committed to paying about two-thirds of the cost. Local residents, however, long have been averse to paying for such plans. Dumping waste into international waters, apparently, is preferable to raising taxes.
All of this has presented a conundrum for Washington. In 1993, state leaders called for tourism boycotts of Victoria to force the issue. Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to British Columbia Premier Christy Clark emphasizing the importance of the issue to Washingtonians. “Left unresolved, Victoria’s lack of wastewater treatment has the potential to color other regional and national issues at a time when our two countries are working to re-establish steady economic growth through various cross-border initiatives,” Inslee wrote, adding that Washington supported British Columbia’s successful bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics in exchange for a commitment to a wastewater treatment plant.
Because cajoling, prodding and pleading have not worked, Washington and the U.S. government should attempt a more heavy-handed strategy. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., recently inserted a provision into a bill that passed out of the House Appropriations Committee encouraging the State Department to employ pressure for a treatment plant. The power of the U.S. government appears to be necessary to get British Columbia to listen to Washington’s concerns. Given the many mutually beneficial agreements between the nations, the treatment of wastewater would seem to be something upon which both sides can agree.
And why not? Dumping untreated waste into international waters is the stuff of Third World nations, yet it is happening just outside Washington. In case Victoria needs a reminder, emptying your toilet on a neighbor’s doorstep is not very neighborly. “It is now more than 20 years since your province agreed to implement wastewater treatment in greater Victoria,” Inslee wrote, “and yet today Victoria still lacks any treatment beyond screening. Delaying this work to 2020 is not acceptable.”
Indeed. And that is why the U.S. government — and all of Washington’s congressional delegation — should pressure Canada to do the congenial and responsible thing when it comes to Victoria’s wastewater.