NAWC Executive Director Responds to Corporate Accountability International in The Hill

Last week, NAWC Executive Director Michael Deane responded to Corporate Accountability International’s misleading op-ed in The Hill that tried to raise fear about private sector involvement in rebuilding our nation’s water infrastructure. In his response, Deane called the group’s attempt to turn the infrastructure debate into a public vs. private battle “dangerously shortsighted.” Read Michael Deane’s full piece below:

In her piece, “Trump’s infrastructure plans will hamper access to clean water,” Corporate Accountability International President Kelle Louaillier once again ignores critical, well-known facts in the discussion around private water operators and infrastructure. 

While everyone from Ms. Louaillier to Mr. Trump agree on one thing — America faces a water infrastructure crisis — CAI and the activist community are clear outliers when it comes to addressing this crisis.

Their misleading claims and fearmongering are not helpful to those looking to provide communities with serious, viable solutions. Trying to make this a private versus public debate does nothing to help local leaders struggling to meet the challenges of day-to-day management of their crumbling water systems.

The private water industry provides municipalities with expertise, greater efficiencies and access to capital to make much needed investments. In fact, 73 million Americans receive safe, reliable water service thanks to a private water company.

In many communities across the country, water infrastructure needs are too great for the community to shoulder on its own. The numbers are staggering.

America’s drinking water infrastructure needs an estimated $384 billion in investment through 2030 and the amount needed for wastewater infrastructure is $271 billion.

Here are a few more important facts about private water — a 2014 study from Georgetown University and Texas A&M found that government-operated water systems are 24 percent more likely to incur violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act than privately-operated systems.

Further, an independent analysis of EPA data by Global Water Intelligence concluded that companies that are members of the National Association of Water Companies — meaning private water companies — have far fewer EPA enforcement actions per 1 million customers. These are facts based in hard evidence, not the spin offered by CAI.

Here’s another example of CAI’s spin — the group points to the situation in Flint and claims that the crisis there has something to do with private water. The fundamental problem with CAI’s narrative is that Flint’s water system has been under public control for decades, lacking investment and operational expertise.

This ultimately resulted in dangerous levels of lead in drinking water being delivered to homes. Conflating Flint with privatization is nothing more than a scare tactic with zero supporting facts.  

CAI also boldly misrepresents the role of private water operations in Hoboken, NJ.  It’s true that SUEZ provides expertise in partnership with the Hoboken government to repair and maintain the water system.

However, SUEZ’s contract with Hoboken calls for the company to spend $300,000 a year on the water system. This amount of investment is barely enough to cover repairs and is certainly not enough for the city to undertake the large-scale main replacement projects that are necessary to avoid recurring breaks.

Over the 20-plus year relationship between SUEZ and Hoboken, the company has operated by the terms of the agreement, often contributing more than required to the water main repair fund.

Finally, in Pittsburgh, CAI once again gets basic facts wrong. Veolia and PWSA had a consulting agreement limited by contract and focusing on improving the day-to-day operation of the treatment plant and sharing industry best practices.

The 2014 corrosion control change from soda ash to caustic soda was an operations decision made by PWSA’s water treatment staff, not Veolia. In fact, the contract specifically stated that PWSA “will at all times be ultimately responsible for the operation and maintenance of its facilities.” 

It’s dangerously shortsighted to believe, with a crisis this serious and this extensive, that the public sector can do it on its own. There is widespread recognition that private finance is crucial to meeting infrastructure challenges.

In fact, leaders and groups from all political persuasions, from President Obama’s White House and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the Brookings Institution, understand the importance of private sector involvement in water infrastructure and delivery. So it’s really CAI that is, once again, outside the mainstream.

We are pleased to see Congress and the incoming administration ready to take action to fix our nation’s infrastructure. Only time will tell what all of the plans look like and what all the fine details are. It’s long overdue.

In the meantime, it’s irresponsible for groups like CAI to attempt to limit the options available for communities trying to address their water needs by making blanket statements decrying any role for the private sector. All options need to be on the table. Period.

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