Private Water Only Causes More Woes
Jackson, Mississippi Grapples With Water Decisions As City Moves Forward
Water pressure has been restored in Jackson, Mississippi, but the pressure is truly on elected officials, as the city decides how to move forward. Jackson remains under a boil water advisory that was first issued on July 29.
You can see from this Tweet the city has a long way to go.
Imagine how hard it must be for folks who don’t have cars or anyone with mobility issues to go out and get safe water.
“As we turn to long-term problems in the future, I want to clarify a few things: There are indeed problems in Jackson that are decades old, on the order of $1 billion to fix,” Mississippi’s Governor Tate Reeves said at a press conference held earlier this week.
In that same press conference, he also said he’s open to the idea of privatizing Jackson’s water.
“Privatization is on the table,” the governor said. “Having a commission that oversees failed water systems as they have in many states is on the table. I’m open to ideas.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has said he opposes totally privatizing the water system by selling it to private company, according to Mississippi Free Press. On Aug. 8, he said that he would consider a “maintenance agreement” with a private company for operations and management of the system to alleviate staffing shortages.
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Let’s talk about how privatization harms communities.
First, let’s define it. Water privatization is when a private corporation buys or operates a public water or wastewater utility. It’s also sometimes called an investor-owned utility. One such company that I’ve gotten to know quite well over the years is Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Not the picture of where we want to go with our water, if you ask me!
When municipal water gets privatized it often leaves communities to suffer. These issues can range from mismanagement to higher water bills to worse service to poor water quality and the people are left with little to no control to fix them.
People and communities have a right to water. We can’t exist without it.
About 35 million Americans receive their tap water from privately owned, for-profit utilities, according to Manuel Schiffler’s 2015 book Water, Politics and Money. Most U.S. public water systems are owned by local governments, and all water utilities in large U.S. cities are publicly owned.
The two biggest for-profit water utilities are American Water and United Water. The bottom line for these corporations is to make profits, period.
Water Woes in West Virginia
I know a little about American Water. Just ask any of the 300,000 residents in Charleston, West Virginia, who woke up one morning back in January 2014 to a do-not-drink order on their tap water.
They couldn’t brush their teeth, brew a cup of coffee, or make oatmeal that morning thanks to an industrial chemical spill, and not a small one at that.
About 10,000 gallons of an unregulated chemical, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River. The cause? Corrosion—in the form of a one-inch hole where chemicals seeped out and into the river. Records showed that the tank had not been inspected since 1991.
Do-not-drink orders like this one, along with boil advisories, are becoming more common in cities and towns throughout the nation. They are indicative of larger drinking water problems at play and show the gaps and failures in our infrastructure.
From the calls and emails I receive, I estimate that there are 1,500 boil-water advisories happening each month in the U.S., but no one is tracking them at the national level.
Suddenly losing access to clean water or wondering whether the water is safe to drink is both a huge inconvenience and a health hazard. No one wants to receive this kind of wake-up call.
It’s no secret that West Virginia is a global hub for the chemical industry with the presence of conglomerates like DuPont, Bayer, and Stockmeier Urethanes USA.
A little-known fact is that such chemical storage containers are scattered along American waterways, often near critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants.
In this case Freedom Industries, a company that processed and stored chemicals for the coal industry, owned the tank situated about a mile upstream from the West Virginia American Water treatment plant. Yes, a private water utility.
Even with a robust carbon filtration system, the treatment facility, which supplies water to most of the households in the state capital, was overwhelmed as the chemical leaked downstream to its facility and released a pungent, licorice-like odor into the air.
Many residents remained under a “do-not-use” advisory for more than a week. Hundreds were treated at local hospitals for a host of health problems including severe skin rashes and sores, dizziness, and vomiting. Scores of schools and business shut down as well. Sam’s Club and every other retailer within a twenty-mile radius sold out of bottled water.
About five thousand people reached out to me in the days after the spill. I worked with local organizers to host a town hall meeting at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium on extremely short notice.
During the discussion, many community members voiced their frustration and said they felt helpless.
People in times of crisis need leaders, yet local legislators let their phones ring rather than answering their constituents’ questions, according to many residents’ accounts. When these incidents happen, trust gets diluted. People wake up to how little they know about their water system and are left wondering who is helping protect them and their health.
It’s easy to take clean water for granted until it’s suddenly not there. Did the private water company make this town any safer?
You can read Matt Wasson’s 2014 essay, “Who Owns West Virginia’s Water? A Cautionary Tale” for more details about why so many people in a water-rich state depend on a single, privately-owned treatment system and distribution network that sprawls across nine counties for their supply of drinking water.
Facts & Figures on Water Privatization
Business has muddied government’s priorities, according to Community Environmental Legal Defense.
The org writes on their website:
In regard to municipal water systems, corporations often seek to woo municipalities to hand over their water or sewer systems in a long-term contract. Once signed, privatization is difficult to reverse. If a company fails to live up to its end of the deal, proving a breach of contract is a costly and complicated process.
Nonprofit Food & Water Watch maintains a fact sheet on water privatization.
A few important points that they share:
Privatization is irresponsible. By privatizing water and sewer systems, local government officials abdicate control over a vital public resource.
Privatization limits public accountability. Multinational water corporations are primarily accountable to their stockholders, not to the people they serve.
The objectives of a profit-extracting water company can conflict with the public interest. A water corporation has different goals than a city does. It makes its decisions using a different set of criteria, often one that emphasizes profitability. This can create conflict.
Investor–owned utilities typically charge 59% more for water service than local government utilities. Food & Water Watch compiled the water rates of the 500 largest community water systems in the country. We found that private, for-profit companies charged households an average of $501 a year for 60,000 gallons of water. That’s $185 more than what local governments charged for the same amount of water. Read the report: The State of Public Water in the United States.
Water privatization is not a real solution to government financial challenges. It is a one-shot ploy that masks the underlying problems. It also delays the hard decisions necessary for real fiscal sustainability. It won’t reduce public bills or mitigate the financial burden on taxpayers. Instead, it increases the long-term costs borne by households and local businesses. Read our report: Borrowing Trouble: Water Privatization Is a False Solution for Municipal Budget Shortfalls.
Back in Jackson…
EPA Administrator Michael Regan is on the ground in Jackson today (September 7) with plans to tour the city's water treatment plant and meet with residents about the water emergency.
I’m glad he’s meeting with residents and I hope more local officials follow suit.
Talk to the people! They can tell you what’s going on. Then, it’s your job to fix these problems. Plain and simple.
The thing to remember is that this isn’t a canary in a coal mine situation. The canary has been dead for years.
If you think that Jackson or Charleston, West Virginia, or Flint or any of the many, many communities we’ve written about in this newsletter are isolated incidents, you are not paying attention.
Infrastructure collapse is colliding with climate change to create massive problems that are not going away.
There’s no use crying over spilled milk but someone still has to clean it up.
CNN has been reporting on another city with just 20 days of freshwater left.
The city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, plans to use a nearby lake as a backup water supply, effectively extending its water countdown from 20 days to about 100 days.
Ashy sludge leftover from a massive wildfire that burned hundreds of thousands of acres tainted the water supply to the city, both a river and reservoir.
Significant monsoon-style rainfall then washed the charred debris into the water system, causing a huge health concern. When burned organic matter reacts with high levels of chlorine used to treat water, it can become carcinogenic.
Officials have tested a nearby lake, concluding that it’s safe to drink and the water can be pumped through its pipes. Hopefully, this backup water supply will give officials time to implement a new treatment process that can handle the contaminated water.
But even 100 days to overall a water treatment plant is a tall order.
Let’s keep the conversation going. Sound off in the comments below! What do you think about these ongoing water issues? What do you think about water privatization?