Science, Values and Sustainable Wastewater Management

Contact: Dr. Gunilla Oberg

Project Goal

We are examining the relationship between the values held by scientific experts, their disciplinary identities and the evidence-based policies they recommend and exploring how embracing the diversity of values among experts can be used to strengthen the democratic process, focusing on controversies surrounding wastewater management.

Background and Motivation

Controversies surrounding wastewater planning often become highly contentious, commonly leading to a polarization of positions across experts and an impasse from the point of view of policy development. These situations are not unique in that wastewater policy leans heavily on judgments made by scientific and technical experts. Yet, an evidence-based consensus is seldom reached as experts disagree about what solution poses the smallest risk to humans and the environment while maximizing benefits. We suggest that this in part is due to practitioners of a scientific discipline do not merely study a specific domain of phenomena, but often care deeply, in a strongly value-laden way, about the particular phenomena they study. These values enter into the evidence-based policies they recommend. Even so, in wastewater policymaking, it is assumed that a science-based consensus is possible and desirable, and when scientific controversies erupt, governments generally respond by advocating for more research. We propose that when a decision is made, it is not because a science-based consensus has been reached but because certain perspectives have been excluded through a power-play among expert groups, as has been observed in other contexts. Framing wastewater as a technical problem hides social aspects such as the fact that all solutions have unequal distribution of risks and benefits.

The impacts of value perspectives on expert judgment are likely unavoidable, in which case the question is not how to eliminate them but how to effectively manage values to promote better science and policy decisions.

Case Study

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

The Capital Regional District (CRD) in Victoria, British Columbia (BC) is situated at the south-west tip of Vancouver Island and discharges its sewage untreated at a depth of 60m. The conflict started in the 1960s with prominent academics on both sides of the debate. On July 2, 2006, the Minister of the Environment, BC Barry Penner, mandated the CRD to “submit to me for approval no later than June 30, 2007 … a fixed schedule for the provision of sewage treatment” (BC Ministry of Environment (MOE) 2006). While the pro-discharge contingency has continued to fight the Minister’s 2006 decision to treat the sewage, the post-2006 controversy has also included questions of how the sewage should be treated and handled (e.g. recover or not, apply on land or not, incinerate or not), and of geographical siting. While the sewage remains discharged without treatment, on September 14, 2016, the CRD board (once again) approved the siting and design of one central sewage treatment plant and it is presently under construction.