Palmer: Independent review of North Shore sewage scandal needed

Opinion: Metro can’t go to Ottawa and Victoria for more money for the $3.8 billion project without a much clearer understanding of what went wrong.

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VICTORIA – Residents of North and West Vancouver were warned six months ago about the stratospheric budget overrun at their highly troubled wastewater treatment plant.

“Shocking bill coming for North Shore wastewater treatment plant,” read the headline of columnist Kirk LaPointe’s Sept. 20 article in the North Shore News.

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“You’d better read the next line sitting down,” LaPointe wrote, based on leaks and addressing local taxpayers directly. “I’m told the new estimate is $4 billion.”

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When the wastewater project was launched seven years ago, it had a price tag of $700 million and there were commitments of $200 million each from the federal and provincial governments.

Senior governments limited their contributions. Any excess would be the responsibility of the three municipalities served by the treatment plant: the city and district of West Vancouver and North Vancouver.

The LaPointe pump prompted some complaints about leaks from the project’s parent organizations, the Greater Vancouver Sewage District and Metro Vancouver.

However, no one flatly denied that a four-fold increase in the most recent $1 billion estimate was close to what was happening with the project.

A conformation of sorts came the following week when Metro Vancouver president George Harvie appointed a committee to oversee the budget.

“I am creating a working group to review options for delivering this key project while mitigating its potential cost impacts in the region,” Harvie announced in a Sept. 29 press release. “Over the coming months, the task force will present the Metro Vancouver board of directors with options for careful consideration.”

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Those options would address “budget adjustments and procurement options to complete the wastewater treatment program.”

The task force did its work under a gag order, imposed by Harvie himself.

“Given the confidentiality and sensitivity of the issues and information discussed, working group meetings will be closed,” the terms of reference said. “The meetings, including all documents, discussions and information, are privileged and confidential and should not be discussed outside the meetings with anyone who did not attend the meeting.”

Any waiver of confidentiality could only come from Harvie.

The effect was to silence the other 14 municipal leaders named to the task force.

Members included the mayors of the three North Shore municipalities and some of the region’s most outspoken leaders: Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke, Malcolm Brodie of Richmond, Mike Hurley of Burnaby and Brad West of Port Coquitlam.

Additionally, members were ordered to be “aware of their obligations to the sewer district and Metro Vancouver (and) the highly sensitive nature of privileged and confidential information related to the project.”

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They were also warned that “disclosure of such information may have adverse consequences for the sewer district and Metro Vancouver.”

Those adverse consequences were evident when Metro Vancouver called a news conference Friday afternoon, the preferred window for governments hoping to minimize the consequences of an announcement.

Harvie was not present to announce the conclusions of the working group he had chaired.

He would later tell Bob Mackin of the online news service Breaker that he was double-booked, as if there was no option to reschedule the entire month.

Instead, Harvie left it to Jerry Dobrovolny, Metro’s chief administrative officer, to confirm that last September’s leak was accurate.

Following an in-depth analysis by the task force, Metro Vancouver now estimated that “the realistic total cost to deliver the project will be $3.8 billion.”

The final cost remains subject to denials over a construction contract and a design that is still not complete after all these years.

In addition, the project will not be completed until 2030, which would be a delay of 10 years.

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Dobrovolny had attributed previous excesses to “difficult terrain conditions, seismic resilience requirements, space limitations, geotechnical complications, contractual issues and,” of course, “COVID 19.”

Now added market conditions, the rising cost of labor and materials, plus the need to fix 1,500 deficiencies that were discovered after Metro fired the project’s initial contractor.

Harvie insisted there is no choice but to move forward.

“Construction of a new wastewater treatment plant that provides a higher level of treatment is essential to comply with federal regulations, and it is absolutely critical that the facility be built to ensure that human health and the environment are protected in the future,” he said. Press release.

“We created a working group to carefully and exhaustively explore all options available to us, and we believe we now have a viable path forward.”

The way forward would add $725 a year to tax bills on the North Shore, Gordon Mcintyre reported in The Vancouver Sun on Saturday.

The province could offset some costs by increasing its contribution, as this is an election year in which the New Democrats want to retain their two seats in North Vancouver. Ottawa could also acknowledge that its environmental standards drove up the cost of the project.

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But before spreading the cost of this fiasco across the province and across the country, senior governments should first insist on an independent review of what went so wrong.

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