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Whistler saying no to P3 sewage plant

Opponents deliver 1,415 elector response forms to municipality
P3 Opponents Betty McWhinnie and Pina Belpario of Whistler Water Watch deliver 1,415 (corrected count) response forms to the municipality Monday. Photo by Christine Feleki

Betty McWhinnie has never considered herself an activist. But keeping Whistler’s sewage treatment plant public was important enough to prompt McWhinnie, 83, to volunteer at Whistler Water Watch information booths this month.

"I became so alarmed and so concerned I decided to do something about it," said McWhinnie.

She joined the grassroots organization and worked at information booths set up around town in the past three weeks helped to gather signatures from Whistler residents opposed to a public-private partnership (P3) plan for the $58.5 million expansion and operation of Whistler’s sewage treatment plant.

McWhinnie joined Whistler Water Watch as they delivered the 1,415 elector response forms gathered in the three-week campaign to municipal hall on Tuesday.

Under the alternative approval process, 892 residents, 10 per cent of Whistler’s population, have to properly complete forms before the municipality will consider reviewing the P3 plan. If that threshold is met municipal council will then have to decide to either scrap the P3 plan or hold a referendum on the issue. The deadline for forms to be received is June 12.

"This tells us that a lot of people want to keep our waste water treatment public," said spokesperson Pina Belperio. "They don’t think that private hands belong in our water systems."

Belperio said 90 per cent of those who signed said they did so not because they needed more information to make an informed decision but because they were opposed to the municipality’s plan to opt for a public-private partnership approach to upgrade the plant.

Council’s reversal of a 2003 engineering department recommendation to upgrade the aging sewage treatment plant in a traditional manner and opt to tender out a design, build and operate (DBO) approach for the plant has caused concern locally. Although Whistler’s engineering department supports a 12-year DBO approach as being cost-effective, the plan has come under fire as being expensive and could lead to inefficiencies and higher rates.

Whistler Water Watch, the organization spearheading opposition to the P3 plan, has grown to over 25 members in a few short weeks. Belpario said water privatization is a motherhood issue that provokes many to action.

"What a lot of people are saying is that privatizing other things like liquor stores or car insurance is not a big deal because you don’t have to have those things. But when it comes to water people are very sensitive to that subject because it can effect everyone."

Belperio said she was impressed with the number of behind-the-scenes residents who downloaded forms and distributed them amongst colleagues at work. Council now needs to act decisively, she said.

"The people have spoken and it’s time to just get this thing built. We don’t need any more studies. We don’t need a costly referendum."

Council passed a motion by Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morton last week for a tally of expenses surrounding the proposal, including legal fees, consultants, panel, adjudicator and auditor costs. These costs will not be compiled before the alternative approval process is complete.

McWhinnie said there were no problems gathering signatures.

"Most people just rushed over and said ‘yes, let me sign it,’" McWhinnie said. "They didn’t wait for any explanation, they had read enough about it in the paper to be informed."

Belpario said delivering the signatures in bulk was a strategic move.

"Many who signed were not comfortable dropping off their forms individually because there was no accountability, no ballot box. Security was an issue."

The 1,415 forms delivered by Belperio do not include those already received by the municipality. Total numbers will be presented to council June 19.