06/11/2014 02:48 EDT | Updated 08/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Victoria sewer dispute hits the fan as Washington state urges B.C. intervene

VICTORIA - Victoria's long-delayed sewage treatment plans have become an international irritant, with Washington state demanding the British Columbia government step in to stop the flow of raw waste into the ocean.

Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to B.C. Premier Christy Clark demanding she order local Victoria-area governments to get off the pot after more than 20 years of debates and promises about treating the region's sewage.

"It is now more than 20 years since your province agreed to implement wastewater treatment in greater Victoria, and yet today Victoria still lacks any treatment beyond screening," Inslee wrote in a three-page letter to Clark.

"Delaying this work to 2020 is not acceptable."

Inslee was not available for comment.

Last month, Clark's government refused to force the Victoria-area municipality of Esquimalt to accept the regional district's plans to locate a proposed $780-million treatment facility on the shores of the community.

The Victoria region's politicians have been scrambling ever since to develop a Plan B for sewage treatment, and on Wednesday during a public meeting of more than a dozen sewer politicians, one member of the public called for a moment of silence for the project.

Inslee's letter said Washington supported B.C.'s bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics partly because the province said the Victoria area would commit to sewage treatment. The letter also points out that in 1993, Washington called for Victoria tourism boycotts to force the issue of sewage treatment.

Victoria is one of the few remaining Canadian cities that does little to treat its sewage, essentially pumping 130 million litres of raw effluent daily into the Juan de Fuca Strait.

Environmentalists and communities in the United States complain of pollution, while scientists say the ocean acts as a natural toilet that flushes and disperses waste with minimal environmental impact.

Inslee said the sewage issue poses health and economic issues for the area, because the untreated waste flows towards Washington state.

"Left unresolved, Victoria's lack of wastewater treatment has the potential to colour 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," said the letter.

Clark's office directed calls about the issue to B.C.'s environment minister, Mary Polak, who issued a written statement.

Polak's statement said she had received Inslee's letter, and she said the province recognizes the governor's concerns.

"We share these concerns, which is why we have directed the (Victoria-area) Capital Regional District to deliver on its requirement for sewage treatment," stated Polak.

"We fully expect the Capital Regional District to meet both their federal and provincial requirements. We have made it clear that sewage treatment will happen; this is not up for debate."

Polak warned that Victoria-area taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $500 million if the cities and districts within the regional district can't decide where to locate a sewage treatment plant.

The provincial and federal governments have committed to fund two-thirds of the treatment plan project, but that money is tied to completion timelines between 2018 and 2020. If that timeline isn't met, local governments could end up paying, said Polak.

Sewage treatment is expected to be a major issue in Victoria-area municipal election campaigns this fall.

Sewage was also one of the top issues in the November 2012 federal byelection in the Victoria riding, narrowly won by New Democrat Murray Rankin.

During that campaign, the Liberal candidate rejected sewage treatment, calling it a billion-dollar make-work project for the NDP.

The federal Green party candidate also opposed the sewage treatment plan. The Conservative candidate started the campaign supporting sewage treatment, but rejected the plan halfway through the race.

The varied scientific interpretations of the behaviour of Victoria's waste in deep ocean waters was too much for some during that campaign, including the city's sewage treatment mascot, Mr. Floatie — also known as James Skwarok.

Skwarok has become a local celebrity for showing up at local and provincial sewage meetings dressed in his brown outfit and bow tie. He said the campaign forced him to bring out his brown, feces-shaped costume for what he called his "second movement."