Area B resident takes engineer to task for letter regarding Comox pump station

Dear editor,

Taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, Andrew Gower has made statements in a letter to the editor about sewerage system planning at the Comox Valley Regional District as if they were true, but that in reality have no basis in fact.

He also channels Trump when he attacks people who have concerns about the CVRD’s sewerage planning. And his letter does not disclose that his employer, Wedler Engineering LLP, has done work for both the CVRD and Comox. This creates a direct financial interest that undermines his letter’s objectivity.

But let’s deconstruct Gower’s statements.

Gower suggests the risk of a forcemain rupture along the Willemar Bluffs will be eliminated by building a new pump station at Beech Street in Area B. This seems true, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

It’s the removal of a pipeline full of raw sewage from the foreshore that eliminates the risk, not the building of the proposed Comox No. 2 pump station. There are several other options that would also eliminate the Willemar Bluffs pipeline.

Two of those options were studied and found to be less expensive in the long-run than the current plan. They are upgrading the Comox Jane Place pump station, and upgrading the Courtenay No. 1 pump station now, rather than in 12 years.

Gower paraphrases CVRD engineer Kris LaRose as saying all the Courtenay/Comox forcemain sewer pipes have considerable remaining life. That is LaRose’s hope, but it’s not a fact.

The CVRD started this project without having studied the condition of the forcemain pipes. They have launched an assessment project that will conclude in June, but it will not provide sufficient data to verify the long-term viability of the pipes.

That’s because the current study will only examine the pipeline exterior for existing leaks. It will not show the inside condition of the pipe, so engineers will get little information about when or where the pipe might burst in the future.

Next, Gower says, “… the risks posed by the … pump station are very small,” and he refers to a hydro-geological report. But that report was prepared for a rejected site on the beach access at the bottom of Croteau Road. It’s been misused to apply to the Beech Street site.

Before the CVRD hired him, this same hydro-geologist prepared a report on the Beech Street location that identified a “high risk to the permeable aquifer lenses” of the area. This report said a leak or failure of the pump station would jeopardize drinking water quality.

But at least Gower admits there is some risk to the neighborhood. The Engineers Canada Code of Ethics requires engineers to “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and the protection of the environment ….”

Gower says there’s only a “miniscule” risk that a modern pump station would fail. But you only have to Google “sewer-pump-station-failures” to see that the statement is not true. Just last last week, a pump station in the village of Richmond, Ont. dumped raw sewage into the Jock River after the station failed due to high volumes of rain.

The issue of risk is critical given that the CVRD has said the pump station project will not proceed if the risks to the health of all cannot be “guaranteed,” which is a threshold neither Gower nor the regional district’s engineers can possibly meet.

And even if the risks were “very small,” the results of a failure would be catastrophic. And all the risks would be assumed by people who don’t benefit from the pump station.

The fact is, even the best engineers and their plans are not infallible. The engineers who planned the Courtenay/Comox sewerage system in the mid-1980s promised that a pipeline dug into the foreshore below Willemar Bluffs would not accelerate erosion, despite warnings from residents and environmentalists.

The engineers were wrong, and a class action lawsuit proved it.

Those same engineers promised that the Courtenay/Comox treatment plant on Brent Road would not emit any noxious odours. Wrong again. And another successful lawsuit against the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission.

More than 30 years and millions of taxpayer dollars later, the odour problem still isn’t fixed, though there are hopes for improvements to be made this year.

Gower attempts to state as fact that the DND representative on the Courtenay/Comox Sewage Commission “would have looked at the facts and evidence presented, and considered all options carefully.” But that is not the case.

The legal representative of the neighborhood has documents that indicate the DND representative was not aware of the social implications of his vote, and had no prior knowledge of such key points as whether a recommended study had been done on the integrity of the forcemain from Goose Spit to the Jane Place station.

He had not been fully briefed by his predecessor or commission chair Barbara Price before the pivotal vote, in which he cast the deciding “yes” vote, and all three Courtenay directors voted “no.”

Gower then claims that “all currently legislated procedures and processes were followed.” Again, this is an opinion, not a fact. This has not been established by the CVRD with reference to provincial and municipal legislation, and only a court of law can reach this conclusion.

Gower accuses those asking questions of using “hyperbolic language” and “bullying” and – showing he’s willing to go over the top – of destroying democracy itself.

Civic engagement is the cornerstone of democracy. Governments exist only at the will of the people, who must speak out and vote and hold elected officials accountable. The suppression of these rights – which I suggest are civic responsibilities – results in despotism and tyrannical rule.

Gower states that the critics’ “points are not valid.” How would he know? He has not met with residents of the Beech Street neighborhood or others who are concerned that the regional district is missing an opportunity to create a better sewerage system for the entire Comox Valley.

He doesn’t seem to understand that this is about more than a pump station in Area B. It’s about governance, environmental risks and ending the patchwork delivery of wastewater services, which has and will continue to cause inter-jurisdictional fights.

In summary, Gower makes statements without evidence and without all the information. His guarantees are meaningless. And his direct financial interest makes his objectivity suspect.

By way of background, the Engineers Code of Ethics says to “… endeavor to interpret engineering issues to the public in an objective and truthful manner.”

George Le Masurier is an Area B resident who supports a Valley-wide shared sewerage service that addresses population growth, new technology and climate change and takes in more service areas and more ratepayers so the burden — and benefits — can be shared more widely.

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