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P3 all over me

VC Powel investigates rationales in favour of and in opposition to public-private partnership proposed for Whistler's wastewater treatment plant.

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By VC Powel

The only time I think about wastewater treatment is when I have to do something about it. The outhouse at my cabin, for example, is almost full. That’s a drag. I’ll have to either dig out the existing hole (oh, boy), dig a new hole somewhere else and move the structure over it, or better yet, use this opportunity to put in some kind of composting toilet.

Whistler’s outhouse is almost full, too. The wastewater treatment plant at Function Junction is operating at maximum capacity (as your nose may have told you on occasion) and needs to be upgraded. Unfortunately, the solution is going to be just a little more complex than my outhouse problem.

The treatment plant must take the toxic waste of up to 50,000 people a day and transform it into something benign enough to pump into the Cheakamus River without doing a CN Rail on the fish.

What are the options? Well, if you’ve been reading the papers you know that aside from the engineering technicalities of the process itself, there are two alternatives: Whistler could carry on with the traditional approach and contract out the construction while continuing to operate the plant itself. Or, they could take a new approach and form a partnership with a private corporation that would build and operate the plant. This is known as a Public Private Partnership, or P3. (In both cases, Whistler retains ownership of the plant.)

RMOW staff and council have been exploring these options for years and in 2003 they arranged for a $12.6 million federal-provincial grant to help cover costs. The next year, staff told council they had examined the two options and were recommending that Whistler stick with the traditional approach.

That’s when things took an interesting turn.

It is now over two years since staff made that recommendation and not only have costs soared, but construction hasn’t even started yet. Oh, and the RMOW is now going with the option they originally rejected — the P3 route.

What happened? That’s what I was wondering when I went to an open house at the Spruce Grove Field House in early February this year. I didn’t know much about the issue, certainly not enough to have an informed opinion, but what I’d learned about the process itself intrigued me, and since council planned their final vote on the project in a few days, I felt I should take a stab at getting up to speed. Little did I know the black hole I was about to be sucked into.

Soapbox opera

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