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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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British Water

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This morning I got an email from The Guardian, a British newspaper that I subscribe to. This is a lightly edited extract from their newsletter – about how they get “scoops”.

<blockquote>… reporter Sandra Laville came across something rather curious that made her think ‘that’s funny’. In her case, it was a statistic. 

“I came across this figure that only 14 percent of waters in English rivers were of good ecological standard,” she recalls. “I thought ‘that’s really low’.”

She started asking questions – of officials, scientists at the Environment Agency, and crucially of campaigners determined to improve the quality of their local environment. 

The big breakthrough came when she secured data from water companies on when and where sewage had been released into rivers. When she totted up the answers it came to a total of 1.5m hours of dumping in a single year

“I remember swimming in the sea 25 years ago when there was a big scandal about sewage being poured into the ocean,” Sandra tells me. “I couldn’t believe this was happening in rivers too.” 

The revelations have put pressure on the authorities to come clean on the locations and instances of sewage discharge; on the water companies to take action and invest; and on the regulator to ensure that everyone improves their game. “Nothing will change overnight – this is a massive underinvestment in infrastructure,” Sandra says. “But this has really exposed what they have been doing.” 


One of the leading reasons why I came to Canada was that I no longer wanted to be an Economic Adviser to the British Government. We were shared between the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, and I was going to be moved from looking at London Underground investments to Water Privatisation. And I did not want any part of it. In 1988 water in the UK was controlled by a network of Regional Water Authorities. They were very effective and a distinct improvement over the earlier patchwork quilt of Water Boards. In fact the reorganisation of those was also a significant factor in my earlier career at British Waterways Board in the early 1970s but that isn’t relevant.

Mostly I wanted to work on public transport issues. There did not seem to me to any justification for the privatisation of water. Indeed, it seemed to me that the only way it could be justified was that it would reduce “public spending” (i.e. using taxation revenues) and rely of private funding. For the private sector to make money they would need to find a way to create a profit margin in what was, at the time, absent as it was not needed by the public sector. It simply did not occur to me then that new water companies would seek to cut costs by dumping untreated wastewater in rivers and the sea – but that is what they have been doing.

One of the remarkable shifts in recent years has been the steady rejection of Hayek’s philosophy pursued by Margaret Thatcher and other right wing ideologues. Nearly every policy change introduced in the name conservatism has been shown to be fallacious. The claimed outcomes of better services at lower cost are never achieved in reality – though there has always been quite a bit of “clever” bookkeeping to make it look good. But it also seems that no matter how strong the evidence, when ostensibly left leaning, “progressive” parties get into power they fall into the same mire. Both BC NDP and federal Liberals are pursuing policies that are obviously designed to benefit the few over the broader public interest. This is most clearly true in the case of energy policies. Instead of picking the cleaner, more economically affordable renewable options, our governments are still choosing to support fossils – coal, oil and fracked gas. In transportation we still opt for more freeways and road expansions even though it is clear that this has never ever cured traffic congestion and can’t due to simple geometry. That we still have a mid twentieth century commitment to extending urban sprawl indefinitely which experience shows simply increases costs in general and “externalities” that we mostly try to ignore.

Today we heard the Throne Speech from Ottawa. What we needed to hear was that as a country we are going to change direction in view of the clear and present danger now posed by the climate crisis. For a long time governments at all levels have refused to face up to this challenge and pretend that business as usual can continue. We saw exactly that at COP26 in Glasgow. We got more of the same today from Justin Trudeau. The CG did not announce the end of fossil fuel subsidies and the cancellation of TMX. There was no mention of the export of US thermal coal through Canadian ports – which only happens because no local port community in the US will allow it. Canadian ports are only lightly managed – and that is a federal jurisdiction where local concerns account for nothing. There is a lot about cleaning up the most recent messes – but not very much about what needs to be done to cope with future issues which will inevitably be even worse, as the greenhouse gases that cause these disasters have already been emitted. Too many tipping points have already passed. Too little has been achieved through carbon capture and storage – except increasing the production of oil and gas. There are no offshore wind farms around here, very little geothermal power generation (despite huge potential) and not much in the way of energy storage or improvements to the grid to accommodate renewables. And there won’t be any time soon.

How bad does it have to get to see changes in policy? It has taken Britain 50 years to acknowledge that shutting down railway branch lines was short sighted and ineffective. The mess of water privatisation has also taken a similar amount of time to be acknowledged. In Canada our governments seem even more determined to refuse to change. But then we are still digging up asbestos to export – even though its use here is banned.(Even so, asbestos is still the number one cause of claims for worker compensation in BC.) We know what we are doing is not working. There was no major announcement about reductions of oil and gas extraction so now we know that big business is still calling the shots and humanity is doomed.

As Seth Klein just tweeted: “This #ThroneSpeech was an opportunity post-election, post-COP, post-floods to announce additional climate emergency initiatives & measures. The government took a pass. An exceptionally boring speech.”

Heavy rainfall sends raw sewage into B.C. waterways

Lisa Johnson of the CBC reported on the Friday edition of Vancouver at Six and now the story is on line. I have dealt with the issue of partially treated sewage here before – but the recent heavy rains and melting snow overloaded Vancouver’s antiquated combined system. Most places now have separate storm and foul water drainage systems. We don’t.  However it is recognised to be a problem. Just not one that is being dealt with any sense of urgency.

the pipes are slowly being separated and overall the sewage system is improving, but work won’t be completed until 2050

“That’s a ridiculously long timeline,” [Georgia Straight Alliance spokeswoman Christianne Wilhelmson] said. “I realize there’s challenges with digging up streets and replacing pipes, but this has got to be a greater priority for the region because everyone can see right now the impact that it’s having.”

Now in case you think this is just about polar swimmers paddling in poo, the stuff that is being dumped is going into what was once a major salmon habitat. And the stuff that we flush is loaded with pharmaceuticals which we excrete and then go into the food chain. Along with all the heavy metals and what not that goes down the drains in the street. So I am not just talking about the need for better sewage treatment but also some treatment for storm run off.

At least the CBC story is attracting comments – 38 so far. Please add your comments there and not here. I have added nothing to this story I am simply passing the link along

Written by Stephen Rees

January 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Environment, sewage

Lulu Island plant to be Olympic showcase for sewage biogas power

with one comment

Richmond Review

For goodness sake we don’t need any more Olympic showcases! Do you seriously think anyone coming here for the speedskating is going to want to look at the Lulu Island Sewage Plant?

We should be doing this anyway – should have done it years ago. When I worked for the GLC twenty years ago all the sewage works were fitted with biogas digesters – and we sold power to the grid from the garbage incinerators too. We (The BC Enegry Aware Committee) made a big song and dance a few years ago now about gas capture in the Delta landfill mainly to shame Delta Corporation into giving it third reading! They could hardly turn it down after accepting an award for environmental awareness now could they?

Flaring biogas should be an offence.

I hope that this process will mean that Metro Vancouver stops dumping virtually untreated human waste into the Fraser at long last. Again, thirty years ago treated, dried solids could be bought from GLC sewage works for fertiliser for back gardens!

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Posted in sewage

Tagged with

“ooh, yuck!”

with 6 comments

I went to Garry Point in Steveston this afternoon. I had just received some new screw on lens attachments I wanted to try out. There were some people swimming but they objected when I pointed my camera at them. So I did not take the shot but walked over to talk to them.

Had they seen the signs? I asked

Sign 1

“No” they said. So I explained that they were two miles downstream of the Lulu Island Sewage works which pumps out human waste which is only “screened” not treated. I said I was surprised to see anyone swimming there, as I certainly wouldn’t, given the very high fecal coliform counts in the area. That was why I was going to take a picture. I had hoped that my new wide angle lens would be able to capture both them and the sign. Sadly it wouldn’t – the angle was wrong. But I had not taken a picture of them and I was sorry if I had spoiled their day.

Then I looked behind them, where we were standing talking. They hadn’t seen this sign either.

sign 2

As I walked back to the concession stand a mother and her children came into step with me. She had heard what I had said. She thought the signs warned about the current. So I explained why it concerns me to see people swimming around in diluted but untreated human waste. She thought that if it had said “human waste” on the sign people might have taken more notice.

Her little boy asked me if I meant that they had been swimming in pooh, and I said “Yes”

His reply is the headline

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Environment, sewage