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Washington Lawmakers Propose Travel Ban To Pressure Victoria On Sewage Treatment

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
File photo. British Columbia's Parliament overlooks Victoria's Inner Harbour

Washington state government workers would be forbidden to travel to Victoria, British Columbia, on business under a budget proviso passed by the Washington House of Representatives. The proposed travel ban is meant to pressure Victoria to stop dumping raw sewage into shared border waters.

Victoria is the only major West Coast city without a sewage treatment plant. British Columbia's capital region flushes millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca every day. Washington state officials have complained about this for more than 20 years.

State Representative Jeff Morris proposed the public sector travel boycott to signal that Victoria's neighbors are tired of waiting for a solution.

"It's more symbolic than it is impactful,” Morris said. “But I think it is important because every time Victoria has had a lot of international scrutiny about them dumping raw sewage, they have started to move more quickly."

Over the weekend, Victoria's mayor pleaded for a little more patience amid signs of progress. Mayor Lisa Helps said the Capital Regional District is scheduled to select a preferred option for sewage treatment and seek federal funding by the end of March.

"Washington residents can rest assured that Greater Victoria will have sewage treatment in the near future," Helps added Monday in a prepared statement.

Morris said his predecessor in the state legislature supported a tourism boycott of Victoria over this issue in 1993. Morris, a Democrat who represents several Northwest Washington border counties, said he is unwilling to go for a full-fledged travel boycott at this time because it would hurt communities on both sides of the border.

The CRD estimates the cost to build a sewage treatment system at around $1 billion. The high cost -- and attendant need to raise fees and taxes -- has accounted for some of the delays along with the difficulty of finding acceptable sites to build one or more treatment plants.

The proposed state employee travel ban was not mentioned when state budget revisions were debated and approved on the House floor last Thursday. The story broke in Canada first and it was top of the front page news in Victoria over the weekend.

The budget package drafted by the Democrat-controlled Washington state House must be reconciled with a different spending blueprint passed by the Republican-controlled state Senate on Friday. The Senate budget does not include the Victoria travel ban. Behind-closed-doors budget negotiations start later this week in Olympia.

The proposed state employee travel ban would last until July 1, 2017, "or the completion of a primary sewage treatment system for the city of Victoria, British Columbia and the surrounding Capital Regional District," whichever comes earlier. The proviso includes an exception for travel related to emergency response.

British Columbia officials and citizen groups formerly insisted that Victoria's sewage dumping practice did not pose an environmental or health hazard because the strong currents in the Strait quickly diluted the sewage after it left the deepwater outfalls. Over time, that position became untenable in government circles.

In 2012, the Canadian federal government passed a law requiring cities whose wastewater poses "high risk" to provide secondary sewage treatment by 2020 at the latest. The Victoria region falls in the high risk category.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.