Posted tagged ‘public utilities’

Public Water/Private Water: Whither Clean Water?

December 17, 2009

Today’s NYTimes has a rather extensive article regarding concerns that millions of Americans may be drinking tap water contaminated with all sorts of hazardous chemicals – despite the fact that this water passes the requirements of the (seemingly far insufficient) federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The article doesn’t indicate whether private water systems are, on the whole, more hazardous than public systems, but in describing the egregious case of Maywood, CA, it does note how private systems exacerbate the already difficult process of bringing clean water to the people:

Maywood is only one square mile, but has three water systems. All are privately owned, so local officials have no real power except forcing them to follow federal and state regulations. About three-quarters of the nation’s water systems are private entities, beholden only to their shareholders and the law.

Laboratory tests show Maywood’s tap water has contained toxic levels of mercury, lead, manganese and other chemicals that have been associated with liver and kidney damage, neurological diseases or cancer.

But when Maywood’s residents asked for cleaner water, they were told what was flowing from the taps satisfied the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so the managers didn’t have to do more.

So while insufficient environmental regulation endangers the health of those reliant on both private or public water systems, the privatization of three quarters (!) of the nation’s water systems has closed off the principal avenue public recourse: pressuring elected officials. In fact:

When a city council member named Felipe Aguirre lobbied for cleaner water, anonymous leaflets arrived. “Felipe Aguirre has deceived the citizens of Maywood!” one reads. “Felipe Aguirre does not care that Maywood residents will be paying more for water already safe to drink!” another says. “Do you want this liar and corrupt politician to decide the future of Maywood and its residents?”

If water is a “private” resource, then the owners of that resource can openly declare that profit, not safety, is the bottom line – so long as they are working within the constraints of the law.

Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars

December 15, 2009

As he prepares to run for Governor of Michigan, current Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (Dem) has been campaigning for a 10-cents-per-bottle tax or fee on companies that sell bottled water from Michigan. He estimates it would raise about $118 million a year, enough money to restore the unfunded Michigan Promise scholarship and put $18 million toward programs for protecting wetlands and the Great Lakes. Taxing bottled water companies to fund education and ecology? Sounds good to me.

The biggest and loudest opponent of the idea, so far, is Ice Mountain, a Michigan-based bottled water company owned by the American Water Division of Franco-Swiss giant Nestle. The company is making two moves to protect its privatized grasp on Michigan waters. First, Ice Mountain lawyers and the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association, a trade group) have been arguing that Cherry’s proposed tax is unconstitutional because Michigan’s state constitution prohibits any tax on sales of food products since 1974. Meanwhile, Ice Mountain PR has been hard at work picking at the special wounds of Michigan’s suffering economy with a widely circulated press release claiming that the tax would raise prices for consumers, raise costs for producers, and threaten jobs. In Michigan, heavily deindustrialized, with one of the highest unemployment rates of any U.S. state and a state government struggling financially, Ice Mountain knows that if it cries about increased costs and job loss, people will take notice. Two shrewd moves to protect the privatization of water, indeed.

But the tax is also being criticized by more publicly-minded critics. Some are concerned that it will prevent Michigan citizens from having access to clean water, especially where tap water is considered unsafe and residents rely on bottle water. Others are concerned that taxing water will add fuel to the fire of privatization, making it seem natural and normal that water is a commodity to be sold, rather than a common resource for public use and enjoyment.

Lt. Governor Cherry has responded to these charges in remarkably anti-enclosure terms (see this story on MLive):

Cherry said he knows putting a fee, or tax, on bottled water may be seen by some as turning water into a commodity. But he argues that businesses that draw and bottle groundwater from Michigan have already done that.
“This is a resource owned by all of us in Michigan,” he said. “And so in that context, if someone takes something that’s owned by everybody and sells it at a profit, it just seems to me to be logical that they have some obligation to reimburse those who own it.”
He said the Legislature has decided to let bottlers extract Michigan’s water without paying a fee, which encourages the use and sale of the state’s water.
“If you want to discourage it, you claim what’s rightfully yours — and that’s a portion of the money,” he said.
Cherry said he supports closing a loophole in the Great Lakes compact which allows shipment of Great Lakes water outside the basin as long as it’s in containers of less than 5.7 gallons.

Cherry’s argument that water is a public resource is refreshing and remarkable in these times when water is increasingly scarce, increasingly polluted, and increasingly captured and commodified by large corporations like Ice Mountain/Nestle. But Cherry’s campaign also needs to be kept in context: it is just another move in a long-standing battle for the water of the Great Lakes.

Peter Annin wrote his award-winning 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars (see his website here) to show how and why the region has become the target of such vicious water wars in the last several decades: the lakes hold 18% of the world’s surface fresh water (not including underground aquifers). Amidst a global water crisis, it is no wonder that corporations are working to snatch up this water, while locals fight to protect it. Questions of ownership and jurisdiction are difficult in the great lakes basin, however, which spans 7 U.S. states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) and sits astride the U.S.-Canadian border. Thus, on top of questions about whether water can and/or should be publicly or privately owned, there are questions here about which states, provinces and nations have claim to the waters as public property.

For more on water privatization and protection in the Great Lakes region, visit Save Michigan Water.

sludge update: from the bay area to the globe

December 5, 2009

The New York Times recently ran this story about a fight over privatizing sewage treatment in Novato, California. In September, local government decided to turn over sewage treatments to Veolia, one of the world’s largest water companies, based in Paris. Problem is,  both the city of Novato and Veolia have, in separate cases, been investigated for illegally dumping sewage into San Fransisco Bay. Veolia found itself snared in a couple of lawsuits, while the EPA raided the Novato water works searching for bureaucratic evidence (paperwork) of dumping. A local NIMBY insurgency has risen up, much like in our previous posts about Synagro and Cochabamba. Veolia also shows up (along with Bechtel and “disconcerting echos of Cochabamba”) in this post from Irish Eco Site The Local Planet, which asks “is there hidden profit in your water?”

So here is yet another story about a global water processing giant, committed on paper to sustainability, but closely watched by citizens and regulators. Regulators are concerned about the practice of illegal dumping, and citizens add concerns about California’s failing state budget, higher utility costs, and loss of local control and local jobs.

All of this is just another round of the same water wars. In this latest round, giant global corporations like Veolia, Suez, Bechtel and Synagro compete to scoop up as many fresh water and waste water processing and distribution gigs as they can, as more and more of the globe’s water is privatized. Privatization, in this case, is deeply connected with globalization. When French companies like Suez and Veolia are snatching up water contracts in California and Bolivia, we should be asking why, just like citizens in Novato are.

Greenwashing Synagro: Secretive Corporate Giant Has Got the Private Poop

July 17, 2009

following up on P’s recent post about privatizing sewage…

I live near Detroit, so this year has been a doozy. Not only is Detroit (and all of SE Michigan) hit hard by unemployment, foreclosure, restructuring of the automobile industry and long-standing poverty, neglect and racism, but it also recently lost its mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and city council woman Monica Conyers, both of them because of corruption. Beyond the blight, Detroit is dealing with regime change, corruption and political instability.

Conyers’ mistake was taking bribes from the Synagro corporation, the nation’s largest waste disposal company, who wanted a 25-year, $1 billion contract for handling Detroit’s municipal sewage. In what the local media have taken to calling the “sludge scandal” ( – go ahead, google it), Synagro tried to recruit allies on the Detroit city council through bribery. Conyers is the only one so far who has copped to bribery charges, but the palm-greasing probably also included a 2003 junket to Hawaii to see a boxing match with Kwame Kilpatrick (for more, see this story in Detroit Business Magazine Crain’s).

Watching the shit hit the fan in Michigan has been sobering. But its also sobering to learn that Synagro has been greasing politicians’ palms since 1992, and has spiraled downwards into a mire of sludge and PR which threatens government and corporate transparency, health and safety, the environment, our food supply, and effective environmental regulation.

The Backstory:

1988’s Ocean Dumping Act made New York City’s previous waste disposal proceedure (dumping into the Atlantic) illegal and obsolete. By 1993, the city had set up the world’s largest solid waste recycling program, the New York Organic Fertilizer Co., owned and operated by Synagro. Here the relevant palm to grease was Alfonse D’Amato’s. The NYOFC produces Class A organic fertilizer – carefully sanitized with heat to kill microorganisms. But even this highest grade of treated sludge in the land may contain undocumented levels of plastics, heavy metals and other industrial residues – not very well regulated by the EPA, freshly excoriated by the Bush Administration (see “Sludge and Scandal,” 2004).

In 2000, the Houston Business Journal noted that Synagro became one of the world’s largest waste management corporations. The SEC’s disclosure of all Synagro’s subsidiaries is pretty sobering. This Texas company now has subsidiaries in Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Canada and Iraq.

Everywhere Synagro goes, there is trouble from the locals.

In 1992, communities in Oklahoma and Alabama organized to reject New York City waste being used as fertilizer in their regions. As Joel Bliefuss wrote in his truly muckraking piece, “The Sludge Hits the Fan”:

In 1992, the Water Environment Federation, describing itself as a “not-for-profit technical and educational organization” whose “mission is to preserve and enhance the global water environment,” received a $300,000 grant from the EPA to “educate the public” about the “beneficial uses” of sludge. “The campaign will tie in with the Federation’s ongoing efforts to promote use of the term `biosolids,’ ” reported the Federation’s December 1992 newsletter.

“Beneficial use” is the industry euphemism for the practice of spreading sludge on farm fields. Even before the current push, sludge has been applied to soil for decades. Milwaukee’s sewage sludge has been dried and sold nationally for almost 70 years as “Milorganite,” a lawn and garden fertilizer. In 1982, the state of Maryland banned Milorganite after it was found to contain high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal. In recent years, other cities have followed Milwaukee’s example offering varieties such as “Nu-Earth” from Chicago, “Nitrohumus” from Los Angeles, and “Hou-actinite” from Houston.

Milorganite and other commercially-marketed sludge products usually carry labels warning that they should not be applied on food-producing soil. But most consumers and journalists are unaware that tens of thousands of acres, from Midwest dairy land to Florida citrus groves and California fruit orchards, are already routinely “fertilized” with byproducts of industrial and human sewage. In theory, this approach harkens back to the time-honored natural system of composting. Of course, the organic farmers of previous centuries didn’t have to worry that their “night soil” contained a synergistic soup of dioxins, asbestos, DDT and lead that could contaminate themselves, their groundwater, and their food.

It is, in other words, quite a difficult situation. Under cover of producing environmentally responsible recycled waste (a rather progressive, sophisticated organic composting program), Synagro helps cities and companies produce waste which is actually a mix of human waste, food waste, garbage, and industrial waste – whatever goes into the sewer. As Bleifuss points out, “The environmentally sound approach would have been to develop separate treatment systems for human and industrial waste” Yeah…but we didn’t do that. And so he highlights the non-organic, non-fertilizing parts of sludge for his readers:

  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs);
  • Chlorinated pesticides — DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, lindane, mirex, kepone, 2,4,5-T, 2,4-D;
  • Chlorinated compounds such as dioxins;
  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons;
  • Heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury;
  • Bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasitic worms, fungi; and
  • Miscellaneous — asbestos, petroleum products, industrial solvents.

Do you want these in your food? I don’t. Do they maybe help account for all the cases of e-coli in packaged produce recently? Could be. In 2002, Synagro acquired Earthwise Organics and Earthwise Trucking, which most likely use Class A organic fertilizer like the stuff produced in New York City. So should we trust that what we’re getting from Earthwise Organics is really and purely organic?

Since the 1990s, communities in the Bronx have been organizing to protest the hazards and stench of the New York operation. In 2002 Synagro settled out of court with the family of Shayne Conner, a New Hampshire man who died in his sleep a month after the spread of such fertilizer on a neighboring field. In Riverside County, Calif., a Synagro plant closed Dec. 31, 2008 after years of complaints about what residents called headache-inducing, property-value-sucking smells, about 50 miles southwest of downtown LA.

In the Bush era, as the EPA eased up on regulation, Synagro captured a larger and larger share of national and international waste management markets. More and more businesses and municipalities contributed their waste. This waste was then quietly spirited away by Synagro. Synagro not only turns waste into fertilizer (a great idea), but also turns fertilizer into a hiding place for many mysterious industrial residues (a diabolical idea).

In 2007, Synagro was bought out by the giant holding company The Carlyle Group. Carlyle, it seems, recognized Synagro’s power to dispose of waste and keep it quiet at the same time. The buyout, they announced, would be accompanied by making Synagro a private company. In Dec. 2007 SEIU protested, challenging Carlyle to disclose information about potential health hazards of using treated sludge to fertilize crops (SEIU Press Release). SEIU convincingly argued that taking the company private would be an excuse for tight-lipped Cheney-esque non-disclosure. They worried that the terrible secrets in sludge might never be revealed.

Because the EPA and Synagro aren’t too concerned about whether treated sludge is safe, very justified public outcry has set back the long-term prospects of convincing Americans of the safety of organic waste recycling. The public is scared of sludge now, and with good reason – but they should not fear eating food fertilized by their own waste. The key for everyone’s own food safety is to know the difference between Class B and Class A Fertilizers, and to know the difference between organic and conventional produce.

As Bliefuss wrote,

Currently, “certified organic” farmers are prohibited from using sludge on their crops, but the sludge industry is pushing for acceptance by organic farming organizations, and this will be a battleground for industry PR in the future. The amount of farm acreage dedicated to organic farming is currently very small. However, said Brian Baker of California Certified Organic Farmers, “imagine what great PR it would be for the sewage sludge promoters to say that sludge is so clean it can even be certified organic — what a way to `greenwash’ sewage sludge!”

And there you have it! Greenwashing: the insidious PR move of hiding potential environmental waste under the mantle of organic sustainability.

Synagro helps us see all of the different things that can be privatized: it privatized its annual statements in 2007, it privatized the waste disposal business, on the vanguard of de-regulation, it privatized waste itself, it privatized information or knowledge about the chemical contents of that waste. Almost anything can be commodified and privatized – invent a new market out of thin air and someone will usually enclose it, quick.

Worst of all, the poorest people are usually the ones who suffer, albeit in various ways. In the Bronx, the poorest New Yorkers are afflicted with stench and mysterious questions about heath and safety. In south-west Detroit, the people are afflicted by the incinerators that Synagro would have replaced, had the dirty contract with the city gone through. In New York, the people suffer because Synagro is “working hard” (whatever that means), while in Detroit, they suffer because Synagro is “hardly working.”

Privitization of the Sewer Monster

July 7, 2009

The sci fi blog io9 recently posted about a mysterious slime creature found in a sewer in the area of Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow the link to see the revolting video clip.

Initially, a Raleigh public utilities rep issued a statement tentatively identifying the glop and noting that the municipal sewage treatement system would take care of any water that touched it. Later, however, the following retraction was issued:

The video was taken in a private sewer system by a private contractor working for them. It does not belong to the City of Raleigh nor will it reach the Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is the response from our director: “The video is of the private sanitary sewer in the Cameron Village and was taken by a private contractor working for them and not taken by our staff. The blob has been identified by others as worms.”

Notes io9:

I love how the privatization of the sewer system under this particular town has led to a terrible situation where the city’s public utilities commission has no ability to guarantee that the situation will be dealt with in a reasonable way.

This presents an interesting twist on the dilemma of privatization and accountability. In many cases, we have noted that privatization often goes hand in hand with secrecy and a lack of accountability on the part of the private resource holder. In this case, however, privatization is used by the state as an excuse to recuse itself from responsibility for containing a possible public health hazard.