(Westerly file photo)

Prodigal Tofino hopes to break ground on sewage treatment plant this fall

Greater Victoria’s facility leaves Tofino as Vancouver Island’s last town discharging raw sewage.

With Greater Victoria’s new $775 million sewage plant officially coming online last month, Tofino now carries the unfortunate distinction of being the only community on Vancouver Island to discharge raw sewage into the ocean.

Tofino hopes that can change soon.

The West Coast resort destination plans to break ground on a wastewater treatment plant this fall, though what the facility will look like and how much it will cost are still being flushed out.

Both Tofino and Victoria were given a deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, to treat their sewage. Tofino’s CAO Bob MacPherson said the arrival of Victoria’s facility doesn’t make Tofino’s pursuit any more urgent.

“This is urgent regardless of what’s happening down-Island. This is a priority for council to get done in a responsible way and that’s what we’re working toward,” MacPherson told the Westerly News. “One positive thing about Victoria being up and operating now is some of the expertise that was committed to making the Victoria project happen may have a little bit of time available to work with Tofino and help us find a way through this project.”

READ MORE: Victoria no longer flushes raw sewage into ocean after area opens treatment plant

READ MORE: Tofino will fail to meet five-year sewage treatment deadline

Tofino seemed to have a solid path towards starting construction back in 2019 when it received $40 million in funding from the provincial and federal governments. The district’s consultants had estimated that the facility Tofino had mapped out would cost $54 million and the town’s municipal council approved borrowing the remaining $14 million to cover the cost.

That cost estimate proved woefully inaccurate however as the two bids the district received to build the project came in over $84 million, forcing Tofino back to the drawing board to see if more funding could be found, or a cheaper facility could be built.

MacPherson said the district brought in a procurement advisor who specializes in challenging capital projects and has expertise in finding realistic and significant savings.

“We weren’t talking about, ‘Can we trim a million dollars off?’ It’s, ‘Can we trim ten or tens of millions of dollars off the project,’” MacPherson said. “The feedback that we got through that process was, ‘Yes we can.’”

Trusting that procurement advisor’s advice to get through a situation muddied by a significantly undervalued cost estimate presented by another consultant could raise local eyebrows, but MacPherson said the district needs to continue to put trust in available expertise.

“I don’t want to throw shade on any consultants at all. I think everyone has given this their absolute best effort and have provided us with good advice,” he said. “While the advice and feedback that we get has been imperfect, I think we need to take the lessons that we’ve all learned, consultants and (district) staff, and take that information and try to fold it into the decisions that we’re making in the future quite skillfully.”

He said the district reached out to the provincial government prior to October’s election to suggest that Tofino would likely still need more funding for the project, but wanted to see how far it could bring the project’s cost down before making that ask.

“We said to the province, ‘We’re going to need more money. We don’t know how much more, but we want to hit the pause button on how much more funding we need and we want to do what we think is responsible for the universal taxpayer and see if there’s a way that we could deliver the same results through different methods,’” he said.

He said the procurement advisor’s work has largely wrapped up and the district is now working with engineers and construction companies to hammer out the sweet spot between the right project and the right price, adding the district needs to avoid cutting so much of the cost that it winds up with a lemon.

“You can buy a really cheap car, but if you’re doing lots of maintenance on it every month and it’s really inefficient with fuel, you didn’t really save any money on buying a cheap car,” he said. “It would be really easy to knock all kinds of stuff off the bottom from this project that would result in a higher operating cost that the district would have to endure for the next 60 years.”

He suggested the operating costs need to be kept in check because while the district is still holding $40 million in grant funding, the operating costs will be brunted by local taxpayers. He said a cost estimate for the revised project is not yet known, noting the town’s council has approved borrowing up to $16 million for the project and is unwilling to go any higher.

“Even if it was lawful to borrow, it’s just not something that Tofino would be able to afford. It would be a tremendous burden on taxpayers in this little municipality,” he said.

He said the district hopes to break ground this fall, noting the facility is expected to take roughly two years to complete.

Despite the district blowing past its Dec. 31, 2020, deadline to treat its sewage, MacPherson said the district has been in fluid conversations with the provincial and federal governments and believes there will be no penalties as long as work is ongoing.

“What we are given to believe is that as long as we are working to advance the ball on this, there will be understanding,” he said. “If we had decided that we’re not doing this and we’re not advancing the ball, I think we’d be hearing a different response than we’ve heard.”

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andrew.bailey@westerlynews.ca

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