Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

New West council rejects call for inquiry into wastewater plant 'boondoggle'

New Westminster councillor calls for public inquiry on Metro Vancouver’s “debacle” with Metro Vancouver wastewater treatment plant
Rebar sprouts amongst the problem-plagued North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant project on Sept. 30, 2023. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

Members of New Westminster city council are concerned about the “financial boondoggle” being faced by Metro Vancouver as part of its construction of a new wastewater treatment plant – but they disagree on how to respond to the issue.

Metro Vancouver is building the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant, which will replace the existing Lions Gate Wastewater Treatment Plant on the North Shore.

Metro Vancouver and its board of directors have been grappling with way to address the project’s soaring costs, which have increased from its original $700-million budget to $3.86 billion.

At New Westminster city council’s June 10 meeting, Coun. Danel Fontaine presented council with a motion requesting that Mayor Patrick Johnstone be asked to submit a motion to Metro Vancouver calling for a full, independent public inquiry into the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant cost overruns.

According to the motion, the specific circumstances that led to the cost overruns are still mainly unknown. The motion stated that Metro Vancouver is about to undertake other “mega projects that will cost Metro Vancouver billions of dollars.”

Fontaine said the project’s cost overruns mean North Shore residents could be paying an additional $600 a year for the next 30 years.

With “the Iona wastewater treatment plant on the horizon,” Fontaine believes it’s important to have a public inquiry to get a full understanding of the factors contributing to soaring costs of the North Shore plant.

“(It will) get the public some answers as to exactly what happened and what transpired with this costly boondoggle that we now know as the North Shore wastewater treatment plant, which is now pegged at almost $4 billion,” he said. “And who knows if that will be the final cost? But we know right now it's likely, by percentage terms, the largest cost overrun of any major public infrastructure project in the province's history.”

Coun. Paul Minhas supported the call for a full and public inquiry into the cost overruns of the project, citing the need for accountability, transparency, and responsible governance

“It is imperative that we call for comprehensive investigation to uncover the truth, hold those responsible accountable, and ensure that such cost overruns do not occur in the future,” he said.

Questions being asked

Mayor Patrick Johnstone, who is New Westminster’s representative on the Metro Vancouver board of directors, said he shares councillors’ concerns and questions about how Metro Vancouver ended up in the situation it’s currently facing. He said some of the decisions related to the project, including the hiring and firing of the original contractor working on the project, were made before he was serving on the board.

“There is a lot of questions being asked by members of the board about how we got to that situation, and a lot of concern expressed by members of the board, including myself, in public meetings, about what measures we have put in place as an organization to ensure that that does not happen for future significant infrastructure projects that are coming down the road,” he said. “Because this is not a typical event for Metro Vancouver. Metro Vancouver delivers billion-dollar infrastructure services, infrastructure projects, across the region; it has been doing it for decades.”

Johnstone said Metro Vancouver has a “long history” of completing major infrastructure projects on time and on budget.

“The North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant is an anomaly; it's not typical of the way Metro Vancouver does business, and I think that it does behoove us to have those questions and to find out what caused that anomaly to go so poorly,” he said. “I, however, cannot support this motion, because I do not think it's going to result in what you want it to result in.”

Johnstone said questions about the cost overruns are already being asked by Metro Vancouver board members. He said Metro Vancouver is currently involved in legal action with “the fired contractor” so the information being sought through Fontaine’s motion and by Metro Vancouver board members cannot be released right now because of that legal action.

“The board will not agree to a public, open inquiry of this project at this time, because that would jeopardize, that would be counter to, I think, our legal best interest,” he said.

Johnstone told council that he and the Metro Vancouver board will continue to do the work needed to address concerns about the project’s costs.

“I don’t think this motion is going to get us any more clarity or any more direction around the board than we currently are able to deliver,” he said. “There is no one at the board who doesn't feel that we need to do everything we can to bring accountability and clarity to this project.”

Fontaine, however, argued that the motion should go to Metro Vancouver’s board of directors for its consideration. He believes a public inquiry is needed, saying the matter could be tied up in legal action for years.

“I call it a financial boondoggle. A complete debacle is what I call it. An anomaly is being very kind,” he said. “And when you have things like a $4-billion anomaly, the last thing you want to do is stop asking questions. The last thing you want to do is repeat the same mistakes that brought you to the initial $4-billion debacle, which is why this motion is on the floor.”

A vote on Fontaine’s motion ended in a 3-3 tie, which meant it was defeated. Along with Fontaine and Minhas, Coun. Tasha Henderson supported the motion, while Johnstone and councillors Ruby Campbell and Nadine Nakagawa voted against the motion.