Tofino won’t be able to treat its sewage by the federally mandated deadline it was given over five years ago when Canada launched its Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations.
The district has known for over a year that the Jan. 1, 2021, deadline would pass before it had a wastewater treatment facility in place and Tofino’s Chief Administrative Office Bob MacPherson told the Westerly News he reached out to ask for an extension last year.
“They have advised that there is no process for an extension, so we will be non-compliant as of Jan. 1 of next year and we’ve known that for a while. It’s a question, at this point, of how long that non-compliance will last,” he said.
“Reading between the lines, we believe that as long as we are continuing to move forward to bring ourselves into compliance, there’s a low probability of there being any penalty. If we were to, in the alternative, say ‘We’re not building this. We have no plan to build it.’ I think that’s when the regulator and the enforcement branch would start talking about there being penalties for Tofino. We think as long as we’re advancing the ball, we’re likely to be OK.”
The wastewater treatment plan Tofino had in place was recently tossed in the air as the district learned the $54 million cost estimate it had paid a consulting company to come up with was off the mark by a substantial margin, with the only two bids coming in around $84 million.
The district had applied for and received $40 million in provincial and federal grants to build what it thought was a $54 million project, which would have left local taxpayers on the hook for the anticipated remaining $14 million. With that $14 million ballooning to $44 million, the project is officially in flux.
“We’re at the limit of the bill the local taxpayer is prepared to, or can reasonably be asked to, foot. So, where we are is we’re looking for more money from our funders, being the federal and provincial governments…The best scenario would be that our funders are able to help us with this, we get a contractor engaged and we hardly lose our stride,” MacPherson said.
“It’s not just that we don’t want to borrow any more money, we are prohibited by law from borrowing enough to make this happen. There are limits on how much municipalities can borrow and, if there is no closing of the funding gap some other way, we’re just not legally allowed to borrow the additional millions of dollars that would be required to make this happen.”
He said that while the $30 million canyon between the $54 million estimate the district paid for and the $84 million bids it received is vast, there was no way of predicting a global pandemic and the company that put the estimate together doesn’t deserve the community’s ire.
“They go through and look at every single component of a design and put a price on it. This is their day job, they do this all day long so they are constantly in contact with suppliers and builders and so on to establish accurate prices…They went through line by line by line and provided values for every single component of this project,” he said.
“I get the frustration, totally understand it. It’s certainly frustrating for me too…It was something that came so out of left field and has affected pricing. It’s easy to be frustrated for sure, but to say this is something that should have been anticipated I think is a little bit unfair.”
He said potential risks were included in the work to determine the estimate, but no one ever considered the possibility of COVID-19 showing up and drastically changing labour conditions.
“There’s a COVID shadow over all of this…What we’re hearing is there’s a lot of volatility on Vancouver Island, prices are coming in 20 per cent higher on the east side of the island and long range projects are having a lot of risk pricing built into them,” he said. “The way that construction companies are having to operate today is different than how they were having to operate six months ago and, in our case, our estimate was done a year-and-a-half ago. When preparing that estimate, no one was anticipating having to build a project during a pandemic.”
With Tofino unable and unwilling to commit any more local taxpayer funds towards the project, MacPherson said the district is reaching out to the provincial and federal governments for more money, but will need an answer by next month before the bids the district received expire.
“It’s a tough ask at this point and we know that, but we’re in a tough spot,” he said.
He added that, if more funding doesn’t come, Tofino would need to either redesign the project to cut costs, or pursue a partnership with the private sector, though the district has a “strong preference” towards building the project itself.
“Something that nests in all of this, is seeing if there are some ways that we can reduce the overall cost and still have a similar product, or reduce the overall cost with a different design,” he said. “We’d have to find out if there are some things we can cut that would still meet our regulatory requirements.”
Tofino’s neighbours in Ucluelet treat their sewage through a lagoon system, which would be a significantly cheaper route for Tofino to take, but MacPherson said that sort of facility would fall short of the regulations Tofino is being asked to meet.
“If we had built it 30 years ago, we’d kind of escape and not have to do any upgrades for a while but, if we were proposing something like what Ucluelet has, we would not meet modern standards,” he said. “I think, in time, communities that have primary treatment will be required to do upgrades. It seems like, right now, the focus is, and I think rightly, communities that have minimal or no treatment are being required to step up first.”
For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.
READ MORE: Tofino to treat sewage by 2020