Heavy.com Piece Gets It All Wrong
A recent piece that appeared on the website Heavy.com claims to be the result of a year-long “investigation.” In reality, it is simply a parroting of the same tired claims and spin that anti-private water activists have peddled for years. There are no new claims, case studies or “facts” in the piece that have not already been discredited time and time again.
For starters, the author repeatedly demonstrates his failure to understand basic concepts of private water utility operation and regulation. Time and again, the author points out that water rates for private utilities are in some cases higher than the rates of government-owned utilities. However, the author fails to note that there are dozens of factors that influence water rates, including investment levels, water source, geography and water treatment needs. Because there are so many factors specific to each service area – even within the same region – it is impossible to make a true apples-to-apples comparison of rates between systems.
Experts agree that the practice of rate comparisons is unwise. In fact, the Food & Water Watch rate report that the author references as support for his claim cites three separate papers that each explicitly warn against rate comparisons. Citing experts that openly undercut the fundamental basis of your analysis is not the sign of a sound argument.
By making rate comparisons out of context, the author ignores another key fact: water rates reflect water utility investment. A utility that is properly investing to maintain its system will have higher rates than a utility that defers investment. The easiest way to keep rates low is to not invest in a system, let it deteriorate and risk Flint-like failures. Keeping rates artificially low and deferring investment has serious consequences: while private utility rates may be higher in some cases, studies show government utilities are more likely than private utilities – 24% more likely to be exact – to have EPA violations.
In an attempt to make the case against professional water operators, the author tries to use case studies from around the country, yet the activist narratives he uses have already been thoroughly fact checked and debunked. For example, the author tries to use Flint, Mich. as supporting evidence, yet fails to note that Flint has and continues to be a government-run system. In addition, the small contracted role that a private water company played in Flint was limited to addressing concerns specifically related to taste, odor, discoloration, and disinfection byproducts. The company was explicitly told that analysis of lead and copper were not part of its scope of work in Flint, yet the author still holds that company responsible for the lead crisis there.
The author also incorrectly refers to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority – a government entity – as “Pittsburgh’s private water company.” How can you trust an “investigative” report that gets such simple facts wrong? The author explicitly blames Veolia for the lead crisis in Pittsburgh on account of changing corrosion control methods. Yet according to the consulting contract with Veolia, PWSA was “ultimately responsible for the operation and maintenance of its facilities.” Thus, Veolia did not have authority to change corrosion control methods.
And here is just a sampling of the many other places and ways the author gets it wrong. The “scathing” audit that the author references in Camden, New Jersey actually placed blame for mismanagement on the City of Camden, not the private water company. In Atlanta, the author claims SUEZ “fired a quarter of the staff,” yet the contract with the company guaranteed jobs with wages and benefits equal to or exceeding those offered under public operation.
The author also cites Trenton, NJ, as being a great success for rejecting privatization at the ballot box in 2010. However, the full story shows that Trenton doesn’t have much to celebrate with its government-run water utility, Trenton Water Works (TWW), which The Trentonian calls “dysfunctional.” Indeed, the city has violated the EPA Lead and Copper rule; has issued repeated boil-water advisories due to “treatment plant malfunctions” and “filtration problems”; and has struggled to avoid water testing violations. The Trentonian reported in January 2018 that “over the past year, water has turned all colors of the rainbow spectrum — from purple to yellow — and TWW could not guarantee to its customers that the water was safe to drink because a broken filter went undetected for a three-month period.” The state Department of Environmental Protection has noted the utility’s “continued failure” to fix operational, water quality and staffing issues at the water department. Yes, that’s right – this is the same water utility that the author cites as a great success simply because it is run by the government instead of the private sector. It is also worth noting that, through all of Trenton’s water struggles, New Jersey American Water has been there to provide residents of Trenton and four surrounding communities with an alternate supply of safe, clean water when the city’s water has been undrinkable.
Finally, the author blatantly ignores the proven record of professional water utility operators. Private water companies have owned or operated thousands of water systems across the country, and currently provide quality services to more than 73 million Americans. According to data from Public Works Financing, 5,391 private water contracts came up for renewal between 2000 and 2015. Only 182 of those contracts reverted to municipal operation in that time, giving private water a nearly 97% renewal rate within the industry. This overwhelming renewal rate for private water clearly contradicts the picture that the author tries to paint of the industry.
As communities weigh their options to address serious water infrastructure challenges, pieces like this that parade as fact, yet are nothing more than activist propaganda, disrupt a healthy dialogue and potentially prevent communities from considering the very options that would be of most benefit to their residents.