It’s hard to think of a more perennial political issue in Brighton than wastewater treatment. (It’s also hard to think of a title for this post that isn’t punny and a little crude! This will have to do.)
Back in the 2018 election, what to do with our wastewater treatment system was already an old question with tired arguments. I was relatively new to town at the time, and didn’t know much about how such systems worked, but I could tell that it was divisive — I just couldn’t really see why. From what I could tell, there were three different positions on the matter: one camp wanted a big and costly upgrade to a mechanical plant, the Ministry was saying such an upgrade was not required so long as other specific things were addressed (related to ammonia levels), and the fight over which way to go drew the thing out long enough that the third position — doing nothing — became the default. Problematic concentrations of ammonia were (and are) being released into the bay, and the Ministry began to issue fines.
Since then we’ve moved on correcting the issues, so the fines have stopped. That said, our fixes haven’t been successful, so more is needed. This week I attended the public consultation on the matter, and learned a lot about how the system works and how the proposed upgrades would improve it. You can see the documents about it here. (The page also includes the 2017 assessment.)
One thing that I’ve learned about this issue is to avoid the temptation to dig into the technical details. When I was in college, my Greek prof told us “I can teach you just enough Greek this year for you to start a mediocre cult,” and I think about that every time I see public debate on technical issues. A big part of the discourse about sewage treatment in Brighton has come from folks who have complex questions and concerns about complicated technologies, and the reality is that I have no idea whether or not they know what they’re talking about, and neither do most of my neighbours – we barely know enough to know that we don’t know enough. In the past, some politicians have participated in these kinds of pseudo-technical discussions, and I think that’s added more confusion and distrust to the issue than anything. The reality is that the experts in the room are not on council, nor should they be; we hire engineering consultants, and we need to respect their recommendations and use those as the basis for our decisions, rather than undermining their work with technical debates we aren’t qualified to carry out in public.
Public consultations, and the briefings that elected representatives get, are not designed to make us into experts. They give us just enough information to contextualize the key factors, so that we can weigh the options available to us. We aren’t going to make the call based on our personal assessment of the reliability of a particular technology or design; we’re going to take the engineer’s word for it on those matters. We look instead at options related to cost, timing, and outcomes. So here’s the relevant issues on wastewater treatment:
- The upgrades the engineers recommend will likely cost just over $23 million dollars, and will come with a higher operation and maintenance cost in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. We can ask about other options that might be cheaper, and how they compare on effectiveness
- These upgrades will not increase our overall capacity, so new upgrades will be needed in the future
- Our capacity is not currently an issue; based on projected growth (yes, taking into account how quickly we’re growing and which developments are scheduled) we aren’t expected to exceed our system’s capacity for another twenty years
- These upgrades will take ~4 years to complete. If we plan our next upgrades to improve our wastewater system’s capacity in advance (as we should) then we’re looking at having a properly functioning system for about ten years before we need to start planning the next upgrade
- Based on discussion with the engineers, I got the strong impression that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to jump straight to a higher capacity system, because a lot of the features of a higher capacity system actually require a larger scale to function properly and be cost effective. So while it seems almost silly to engage in such a big project with such a short lifespan before more upgrades are needed, there’s limited benefit and big cost to going too big too soon
- That includes some really cool technologies that we just don’t have the scale to implement, such as the ability to harvest methane from our sewage treatment in order to generate electricity, or the ability to process our sludge into fertilizer. Maybe someday!
Another thing I learned at the public consultation — and I learn this at every public consultation — is that these things tend to be poorly attended. Part of me doesn’t mind: we had time to have a great talk with the engineers, because they didn’t need to be presenting their material to others! But it does make me want to do more to make public consultation meaningful. There must be a reason that people don’t attend (a great many reasons), and those can be addressed so that people feel like it’s worth their while to attend.
On this issue, I suspect that it was poorly attended because most people have no real interest in the technical details of the sewer system, they just want it to work. If that’s true, then it also puts the political fury we’ve witnessed over this issue in the past into perspective: the lagoon is not actually controversial, but political controversy can be applied to anything, especially things that are poorly understood.
My goal with this blog is to help my neighbours understand what we need to understand, and to contextualize the things that don’t actually need to be understood. You don’t need to know how the lagoon works in order to participate in your community or feel secure about our future. I don’t either. Being informed is not about being a know-it-all; it’s about trusting in the expertise of others, and knowing enough to identify and contextualize the key factors.
What other issues do you wish you knew a little more about, or have a hard time contextualizing? Comment below or send me a message!