Activists Celebrate ‘Huge Victory’ of Protecting Failing Status Quo in Baltimore
Last week, Corporate Accountability International (CAI) sent an email blast to supporters that celebrated a “huge victory” in Baltimore. And earlier this week, Food & Water Watch (FWW) excitedly claimed that Baltimore had “emerged as a water justice leader.”
So, why all the fanfare? On the heels of a coordinated misinformation campaign, these activists convinced the city to amend its charter in November to effectively ban any water company involvement in water and sewer operations. Unfortunately for Baltimore residents, this action will maintain the status quo of poor water quality and services under city government control.
The list of recent water challenges in Baltimore goes on and on:
- Under city control, the Baltimore water system has incurred four health violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act since April 2014, exceeding the Maximum Contaminants Levels of the Disinfectants Byproducts Rule each time.[i]
- Water bills climbed at least 9% a year from 2009-2018, effectively doubling in that period as the city tries to catch up on deferred maintenance and infrastructure replacements.
- The deferred maintenance and infrastructure upgrades can be seen in system performance, with dozens of old mains breaking during cold weather each winter.[ii] The Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) has stated that water main breaks are “an ongoing, nonstop series of challenges” given the age of the infrastructure in the system.[iii]
- Meanwhile, throughout 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Baltimore DPW struggled to implement a new billing system for the water utility, leading to thousands of incorrect bills and customer complaints.[iv] DPW was known to ignore customer inquiries on incorrect water bills, leaving customers zero options to dispute billing mistakes and other problems.[v]
Yet in the face of these major failures – some of which directly endanger public health – activists like FWW and CAI rushed into Baltimore this fall to prevent water companies from offering any assistance. Instead of helping to fix the water and sewer systems, activists offered and now celebrate a distraction – an amendment to the city charter. As the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board put it, “what we should not do is pretend that banning privatization actually solves anything.”[vi]
Furthermore, all of the praise and excitement from CAI and FWW directly coincided with the announcement from the Baltimore DPW that it would increase water rates by 30% over the next three years – with even more double-digit increases coming after that. As a DPW spokesperson explained in February 2017: “Things did get away from us. We put low-cost, inexpensive water service ahead of the need to re-invest in that infrastructure, and here we are paying the piper.”[vii]
While it is terrific that the city is finally recognizing how delaying investment for the sake of keeping rates low is a bad strategy for water system infrastructure, we found the reactions from CAI and FWW to be curious. If a water company had announced a 30% rate increase, groups like CAI and FWW would have gone apoplectic. But what did they say when the city announced such a steep increase? Not a peep. Activist hypocrisy and blind ideology is on full display in Baltimore.
The Charm City has become a great summary of the activist position on critical water questions: criticize and deny proven solutions from experienced, accountable water companies, even if it means maintaining a failing government operation. To activists, that’s “victory.” We think Baltimoreans deserve better.
[i] US EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) Database, August 2018.
[ii] WBAL Baltimore, “Baltimore DPW launches interactive map of water main breaks” 5 January 2018.
[iii] WBAL Baltimore, “Baltimore DPW launches interactive map of water main breaks” 5 January 2018.
[iv] WMAR Baltimore, “Unusually high water bills shock Baltimore residents” 20 December 2016; FOX 45 Baltimore, “Complaints sill pouring in over high water bills, city to investigate” 7 March 2017; Baltimore Sun, “When the water bill is $50,000” 8 February 2018.
[v] Food & Water Watch, “Baltimore Is Ready to Fix the System It Saved” 3 December 2018.
[vi] Baltimore Sun, “EDITORIAL: Privatizing water isn’t the answer” 8 August 2018.
[vii] WBAL Baltimore, “Insurmountable bills lead to water shutoffs in Baltimore” 13 February 2017; Baltimore Sun, “Plan would raise Baltimore water rates over next three years, offer poor residents help with monthly bills” 1 December 2018; Food & Water Watch, “Baltimore Is Ready to Fix the System It Saved” 3 December 2018.