Is Baltimore City’s Water Supply Up For Privatization?

City Hall denies the charge, but workers and advocates say an upcoming water contract could be a foot in the door for privatization

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Story Transcript

CROWD: Don’t sell out Baltimore.

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: On Wednesday, August 13, activists, union members, and concerned citizens rallied at Baltimore City Hall to decry what they say could be the first steps in privatizing the city’s water.

GLEN MIDDLETON, PRESIDENT, AFSCME LOCAL 44: And we’re here because we want to put a spotlight, a spotlight on selling out Baltimore.

LAUREN DERUSHA, NAT’L CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER, CORPORATE ACCOUNTABILITY INTERNATIONAL: Veolia has a long track record of all different kinds of abuses, especially when it comes to water systems. Whenever Viola is involved, you see rate hikes, you say labor rights abuses, you see health and safety violations.

NOOR: Advocates are citing this document has proof–a public notice from the city’s Office of Boards and Commissions that requests consulting on the efficiency of Baltimore’s water filtration and wastewater treatment plants.

The Real News reached Kirk Coker, spokesman for Baltimore Department of Public Works, who says there are no plans to privatize the city’s water.

KURT KOCHER, SPOKESPERSON, PUBLIC WORKS DEPT., BALTIMORE CITY: We hire contractors all the time, and for various tasks, but there’s no decision at all [incompr.] there’s really no import in this in terms of anything related to any kind of privatization. I mean, we hire contractors all the time. The director the city has absolutely no desire for that, no plans for that. We bring in outside contractors. As a matter of fact, he’s driving around the site right now for various tasks. Nothing too that.

NOOR: The demonstrators say the same type of contract has been used in other cities as a foot in the door to privatize water down the line. Even though the contract was not being discussed, demonstrators attended day’s Board of Estimates meeting, they said, to let the board know they are watching developments closely.

Glenn Middleton, president of AFSCME Local 44, represents city workers who are employed by the Baltimore Department of Public Works.

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MIDDLETON: But we’re here because there is an efficiency study that Veolia is trying to bargain with the city so they can get the contract. And we know what they want to do. They want to outsource. They want to sell out our water department. We have the best water in the entire United States of America.

Veolia has a bad track record around this country. What they do is–.

UNIDENTIFIED: Boo.

MIDDLETON: Yes, right. Boo. Boo.

CROWD: Boo!

MIDDLETON: And what they do is they come in and do an efficiency study; then two years from now what they will do is say that we want to downsize the workers, contract out their jobs. And then what they do is they want to take over the water in the City of Baltimore. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired of our city being sold out, whether to garages, whether it’s different jobs in the Transportation Department, whether it’s outsourcing our water department jobs. So it’s time for us to stand up now.

Today we have some community leaders that are here. But especially the unions are here, because it’s about jobs, it’s about a living wage. But it’s also about not selling out Baltimore. So, again, don’t sell out Baltimore.

CROWD: Don’t sell out Baltimore!

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NOOR: Also taking part was Anthony Coates, president of ASME Local 647, who represents some of the workers in the city’s public housing who may lose their jobs as the city seeks to implement the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s RAD, or Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, which would turn over management of about 40 percent of the city’s public housing to private developers.

ANTHONY COATES, PRESIDENT, AFSCME LOCAL 647: We are here because they want to privatize the water. And what they’re doing is when they do that, they attack all the unions. If they privatize any jobs, they’re attacking all of us. All of it goes with the contract and honoring the workers’ rights. And not honoring or talking to us about what you want to do so we can come to an idea about how we can work better together, there’s a problem. So with privatizing the water, it’s the same as privatizing any jobs that union have.

TRACY LINGO, UNITE HERE LOCAL 7: We’re here today because we’re concerned about the city’s plan to start investigating privatizing water. It’s an issue that’s important for all of our members. Water bills are really high already. And everywhere in the country that we’ve seen water be privatized, what we’ve seen is the rates go up. And we feel this is kind of one in a series of issues about what direction is the city going to go. Is this going to be a city that is a welcoming place for working-class people? Or is it going to be a city that’s only affordable for people that are very wealthy?

NOOR: Advocates are especially concerned about one of the companies the city confirmed has placed a bid for the consulting services, Veolia.

DERUSHA: There are several examples of where this kind of contract has gone very badly for cities in the past, particularly with Veolia. There have been different incidents in cities, for example, like Indianapolis, where 250,000 people filed a lawsuit against Veolia for systematic overbilling of its residents, in addition to all other kinds of problems. In Gladewater, Texas, Veolia also was running the water system there, and there were increased rates and a lot of health and safety violations that led to brown and dirty water coming out of people’s faucets. Ultimately, the city was forced to pay $77,000 to get their water system back and to end the contract early.

NOOR: A spokesman from the Baltimore Department of Public Works says he’s aware of such concerns but emphasized the contract is not the first step to selling Baltimore’s water to private companies.

KOCHER: That has nothing to do with this project or any other project. There are absolutely no plans for privatization, no desire for privatization, period. Our director firmly believes that we have the capabilities of taking care of our system. And as I said, we call in contractors as we need contractors.

NOOR: The Real News’s Lia Tarachansky has also previously reported on how Veolia has been targeted by the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign for making buses that serve on Jewish-only roads and exclude Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

Huweida Araf, cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement, attempted to ride such a bus in 2011.

HUWEIDA ARAF, COFOUNDER, INTERNAT’L SOLIDARITY MOV’T.: When I tried to ride segregated Israeli settler buses that are traveling on roads that were confiscated from Palestinians, and the Palestinians today aren’t allowed to travel on. And they’re serving these illegal settlers that are sitting on our land. At the same time, we want to expose the companies that are complicit in Israel’s policies, and two that we’re highlighting today are the bus companies Egged, which is an Israeli company, and Veolia, which is a French company.

NOOR: Araf was detained and arrested shortly after that interview. Veolia had not responded to an interview request at the time of the completion of this story.

With Dharna Noor, this Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.