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SAANICH, BC — The night before Gordon Campbell dangled a big funding carrot for sewage treatment in the Capital Regional District (CRD), local residents got a sobering lesson—courtesy of CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill—on the public-private partnership (P3) option the premier is now attempting to mandate.

O’Neill was part of a panel on sewage treatment organized by the Sierra Club at Camosun College on October 26. The other panel members were Christianne Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance and Stephen Salter of the Victoria Sewage Alliance.

The panel focussed on the future of sewage treatment in the CRD. Wilhelmson’s presentation, on some of the local environmental impacts of waste management, quoted several reports on contamination issues and the violation of environmental regulations in CRD under the current system. Salter’s presentation focussed on the Swedish model of sewage treatment, where waste is seen as a renewable resource and publicly owned firms play a much larger role than in North America.

O’Neill’s talk focussed on the current push for P3s in water systems throughout B.C., including for sewage treatment in the CRD. Far from their ability to provide cost savings to the public or improve efficiency, the CUPE BC president argued, the provincial government’s interest in P3s is based on an ideological belief that private sector solutions are better.

An article in the finance pages of the Globe and Mail last week made the point that water and water-related projects out-performed oil futures last year,” he said. “Over the next year, profits will be in the trillions of dollars.”

After recounting a few examples of P3 cost overruns (the Richmond/Airport/Vancouver rapid transit line (RAV), Abbotsford Hospital, the Sea-to-Sky highway) and operational disasters in P3 sewage treatment (Hamilton), O’Neill turned to the Capital Regional District.

Quoting a July letter to the CRD from Environment Minister Barry Penner, O’Neill noted Penner’s acknowledgement that some of the work considering alternative financing and delivery options, including private sector involvement, may already be underway.

It begs the question of what work has been done,” he said, “and why is it that, if we are to ensure ‘value for taxpayers’, those same taxpayers have not been privy to such work being done?”

As we go along on the public debate around the appropriate sewage treatment, we need to make sure that there are none of these secret, behind-closed-doors meetings where private corporations sell their wares to our elected councillors.”

O’Neill concluded his talk by noting the results of an Ipsos-Reid poll, which found that 92 per cent of Vancouver Islanders believe that water and waste water facilities are a basic public service and want to keep those operations in public hands.

The same poll found that 80 per cent trust public agencies more than private companies to manage their water and wastewater systems.