The view of the public about sewage disposal has arisen from the information they have received. The way such information is generated and dispensed is illuminating.
Most reliable information regarding pollution comes from Universities, Research Establishments, Professional Associations or Government Agencies. It can be categorized as secret, available but not publicized, or publicized. That which originates from Universities, Professional Associations or Research Establishments commonly falls into the middle category. It appears in professional journals or research papers and is read by specialists. That from Government Agencies may fall into any of the three categories depending on the whim of politicians. Often their concern is to foster their image. It follows that the information that reaches the public is predominantly that which Governments promote directly or by passing to the news media.
Following its receipt, newspaper editors must then consider how it should be presented and they will select what appears newsworthy and put it under a heading to attract readers. The punch must be in the heading and the first few lines because that is all most people read.
If an allegation about pollution arises from some other source, it will commonly be reported with no reference to the qualifications of those making the allegations. Rarely do the media set out to discover who knows most about the topic, seek them out and discover their views. Perhaps the economy of their competitive positions dictate that they only react to others and rarely initiate enquiry themselves.
The information which the general public gathers by this means is commonly quite misleading. Recently a paper presented an article explaining how the unwarranted PCB scare had come about, whilst on another page was an article with a heading commencing "Deadly PCBs".
A typical local example was the recent issuance of an informational paper by the Capital Regional district about recycling. It was put into every letter box. It elaborated at length on the trees saved by the 'blue box' campaign and other benefits but omitted the most important criterion, the amount diverted from the landfill. At the time, that was 3.5%. Presumably the public were not to be trusted with that information in view of the amount of public money that the campaign cost. The informaton is no secret but will only be known to a fraction of the number fed the approved propaganda on the subject.
Another problem arises from the sensitivity of measuring devices. Today many toxic substances are detected that were not detected by previous generations. However, it is erroneous to deduce that things are necessarily worse.
Forty years ago chemicals were commonly measured in parts per million, a ratio which is the same as comparing a quarter of a mile with the distance to the moon. People thought that was pretty clever. Later, things could be detected in parts per billion, which is the same as comparing fifteen inches to the distance to the moon. Later still, they could be detected in parts per trillion, equivalent to comparing a sixtieth of an inch to the distance to the moon. Today some things, such as dioxins, can be measured in parts per quadrillion which is a thousandths part of that again. They may still be significant but headlines about toxicants being discovered have no useful meaning unless put in context.
Adding to this confusion is the addiction of many people of renown to voicing their opinions. A famous author visited Victoria to add her weight to the public outcry that treatment must be provided. A geneticist, made famous by TV broadcasts, adds his immensely influential voice but without ever consulting the local experts who had spent years studying the matter.
Typical of the result is the notion put about recently that Georgia strait is dying, whilst at a major International Symposium attended by some of the world's foremost scientists it was deduced that "to the surprise of the three hundred people present, plus television and sponsors, this group was of the unanimous opinion that ocean pollution was pretty much a myth". Some additional information about this symposium is given in the chapter headed 'Biological Oceanography'.
Everyone knows of the allegations that parts of the sea outside New York were 'dead' because of the deposition of sludge. However, work by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reported in October '89 found the very area in question to be teeming with life, including fish, shrimp and crab.
Frank Ogden pointed out in "this week" that the chairman of the USSR Academy of Sciences Biosphere Council recently stated that "what we know today suggests the conclusion that, contrary to widespread belief, the greenhouse effect will bring our planet no harm".
The opposing parties in these cases might almost be talking about different planets.
It is no wonder the public are misled. However, there is a simple guide to these problems. Often, one will find little variation in views on a subject amongst those who have studied it in depth. Of course experts can be wrong, but allegations of their past mistakes are more often founded on rumour than evidence. Where experts disagree, it is safest to follow the majority view, often the opposite of the most newsworthy view.
In the case of Victoria, a mass of information was available, concerning both the theoretical studies that led to the installation of the two long outfalls discharging screened raw sewage at Macauley and Clover Points and about the subsequent monitoring. This information clearly established that long outfalls were environmentally preferable to land-based treatment plants where conditions were suitable and that conditions were ideal in the deep waters off Victoria. There was no controversy among the various disciplines involved.
The CRD were urged to publicize this information at the start of the recent studies so that the public would have the facts on which to base a judgement. That was the approach taken at a comparable site at Rhyde in Southern England and which there met with success. The notion that they needed a treatment plant was abandoned in the light on the facts. Similarly, it was quite realistic to envisage that an expenditure of $100,000 by the CRD would amply inform eveyone and might well save a cost one thousand times greater to build a treatment plant.
That course was not adopted. Presumably the problem was that the information contradicted the opinions already provided by the politicians, Federal, Provincial and Municipal, of all three parties. No information, no facts, no informed theories have ever been produced to this day by any of them to substantiate those opinions.
Having, in effect, denied the public information on which to base informed views, the same public were then invited to provide their views at public meetings. It was left to those who were knowledgable on the topic to provide facts in the time allowed them, but of course most members of the public had already prepared what they intended to say.
Even worse, misleading information was put about. The notice of the public hearings about the long outfalls was headed 'polluted beaches' and on the next line in huge capitals 'raw sewage outfalls'. The Commissioner later explained that the connotation was not intended, but only a fraction of the people who read the notice will have heard the explanation.
Another problem compounds the difficulty of ensuring that the public receive true and balanced information about environmental problems. Those who are qualified in the matter are commonly employed by Government Agencies. Their mouths are sealed on any issue where the politicians have taken a stand that conflicts with the evidence. They belong to various professional bodies and have studied for the number of years needed at Universities. They must satisfy their peers as to their qualifications and are held responsible under codes of ethics. No whisper of a rumour has ever emerged from the agencies involved that the politicians had any technical support.
On the other hand, there is no restraint on the voices of the spokesmen of the many so called 'environmental' groups and societies that now exist. Some may have excellent qualifications but one never knows whether the person speaking has three relevant pH.D.'s or whether he never finished Grade 10. Further more, they have no accountablility. The result of such a course would be patent in medicine, geology, accountancy or any other profession. It is equally evident and may be even more damaging in the case of protecting our environment.
The ignorance of those in positions of responsibility about who knows what is equally frightening. This Province is well served by universies and research establishments of one sort or another that between them cover every conceivable environmental problem. In a recent news letter from the MP representing Victoria, a list of those who should be contacted if one wanted to pursue an environmental issue was given. It lists eight organizations. None require their members to have any relevant qualifications. No professional or other organization is mentioned, no Government agency at any level, no university agency, no research establshment.
Whipping boy :-1."A boy formerly educated with a prince and punished in his stead 2. a scapegoat"
Pollution in the Western world has become the ideal whipping boy for mankind's sins; blamed for lack of fish rather than blaming overfishing; blamed for industrial discharges to the air rather the cars we all drive; blamed for sulphate emissions whilst China burns nearly a billion tons of high sulphur coal a year. Blamed for polluting rivers which are pristine compared with those in many parts of Eastern Europe and South America, with whom we must compete.
That is not to say that we do not have serious pollution problems but the whipping boy syndrome leads once again to distortions in setting priorities. A large proportion of the time of those working in this field, at public expense, is spent fighting battles that have little environmental significance.
In our case a monumental battle has been fought for over twenty years about discharging raw sewage to the sea, which is not a problem, whilst the time and energy of the experts involved is diverted from environmental issues that matter.
This is one of the hidden but very real costs of not heeding experts. One might hazard a guess that the cost to date to BC taxpayers has been in the millions of dollars rather than the hundreds of thousands.
The problem of who knows what is the subject of the next chapter.