9th August 2022
continued from Part 1
Approximately 70 miles southwest of Towamencin, at Pennsylvania’s southern border, the Chester Water Authority (CWA) organized a Public Water Independence Day in June to mark the five-year anniversary of CWA’s decision to reject Aqua America’s $320 million bid to buy it out. Despite being rebuffed, Aqua has since gone back to the city of Chester with a $420 million offer to buy the water authority. The city—under receivership since 2020—wants to sell, but whether it has the jurisdiction to do so has been in litigation for several years. The water authority has used that time to build support for itself among residents of the 37 municipalities that get their water from CWA.
Public Water Independence Day was therefore not just a celebration; it was an organizing festival, drawing residents and activists from across the region to eat, play, boat, and listen to speakers denounce the actions of “Big Water.” One speaker, Bill Ferguson from New Garden Township, exclaimed, “The Aqua Express is barreling down the tracks. This is not a train you want to get on. However, they’re not asking you if you want to get on the train; they’re trying to kidnap you.” And he should know: Aqua bought New Garden’s wastewater system.
New Garden Township was among the first to sell its sewer system after Act 12 passed. When the sale was announced in 2017, New Garden residents watched their wastewater rates jump 30 percent, and when it was completed in 2020, rates spiked another 37 percent. The agreement between Aqua and New Garden initially included a two-year rate freeze, but this “guarantee” was rescinded in 2019.
Recent research has confirmed what many residents have instinctively understood: When private companies take over water systems, rates go up. A report in Water Policy found that the average bill for customers of private water companies is 59 percent higher than that of public utilities in the country’s biggest water systems. Public systems were also found to be more likely to enact moratoriums on water shutoffs and more likely to implement conservation programs.
Private companies are obligated to increase profits for their shareholders. What little cost savings might be gained through Big Water’s economies of scale—itself a debatable point—are often paid out to shareholders as dividends. And because water utilities are natural monopolies, residents don’t have a choice about where they get their water from or who treats their wastewater. A privately owned utility faces no competitive pressures on pricing, water quality, or customer service.
A report in Utilities Policy found that publicly run systems offer “more transparency and accountability, since board meetings must be public, officials are obligated to meet with residents, and residents are able to voice concerns and demand equitable (and safe) water policies.” A public system is not automatically democratic, but a private company is automatically accountable to its shareholders, not to residents. In Conshohocken, outside Philadelphia, Carol Smith, who’s been a member of the Municipal Sewer Authority Board for 12 years, explained how complaints from neighbors about a smell emanating from the plant led the board to invest more than $1 million in an odor control system, despite receiving no citations from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. What was the mechanism by which Conshohocken’s residents were able to make their voices heard, I asked her? “They would just call the Sewer Authority. We keep track of every complaint.”
Thus, When David Mc Mahon, a resident of Norristown, outside Philadelphia, heard about possible plans to sell the municipality’s wastewater system, he got worried. He’d been attending his borough’s council meetings regularly in 2020. At first, talk of a sale was cast in vague, exploratory terms. But one day in June of that year, council members announced that they had accepted a bid from Aqua and would advertise it for seven days before putting it to a vote. McMahon told me he was suddenly in a “mad scramble.”
Norristown is one of a few dozen municipalities in Pennsylvania that have what’s known as a home rule charter, which includes a provision that allows voters to repeal council ordinances through petitions. McMahon and three other residents who opposed the sale moved quickly. But they were hard-pressed to gather some 2,000 signatures in seven days on a topic that nobody knew anything about. After they failed to do so, they tried to use the same provision to create a ballot question. That failed as well. But by speaking to hundreds of fellow residents during the early months of the pandemic, they were able to recruit volunteers and educate their neighbors. Then, when the sewer authority itself tried to back out of the deal with Aqua, the borough council of Norristown moved to dissolve the sewer authority and accept the bid without it. Now McMahon and the volunteers had a third chance to stop the sale. This time they gathered almost double the number of petition signatures they needed to repeal the ordinances. And it worked.
After the win, McMahon and the group he founded, Norristown Opposes Privatization Efforts, the predecessor to Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts, took their organizing across the state. “We knew from the beginning that once we saw the route and who the players were and why, we had to help other places.” Like-minded Pennsylvanians were not hard to find. McMahon heard from the Towamencin Sewer Authority’s Ryan Cooper. A local blogger put him in touch with Carol Smith from Conshohocken. Then he heard from Henry Yordan, a resident of Willistown who had read about Norristown’s efforts in a local paper. Mike Greek, a CWA foreman of 21 years, found NOPE through its Facebook page. McMahon, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, also sought the help of national organizations like Food and Water Watch and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
When Smith heard about her town’s plan to sell off the wastewater facility, there wasn’t much time to act. With McMahon’s help, she and her neighbors launched a petition, covered nearly every street in Conshohocken with flyers and instructions to call the borough, and put up lawn signs all over town. “That really bothered the borough council,” Smith said. “We had over 100 lawn signs in Conshohocken. And that was my little unhappy toilet,” she added, pointing at a lawn sign featuring clip art of a dour, anthropomorphic toilet next to the words “NO TO SELLING OUR SEWER. Bad for residents, elderly, fixed income, businesses.”
At a well-attended meeting on March 17, the council unanimously voted down the sale, contravening the wishes of Conshohocken’s borough manager. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without David’s help,” Smith said.
McMahon isn’t the only one traveling across the state to fight in Pennsylvania’s water wars. Residents in New Garden Township formed Keep Water Affordable and have been driving to meetings in other townships, including in Tredyffrin, where telling their story helped persuade the township to reject Aqua’s bid. Tom Tosti, the director of AFSCME’s District Council 88, has also been going to board meetings in municipalities throughout Bucks County to try to stop the sale of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority (BCWSA), one of the largest wastewater treatment authorities in the state. (Despite months of community opposition, BCWSA’s board agreed, in an unannounced vote on July 13, to enter into exclusive negotiations with Aqua. If Aqua’s $1.1 billion bid is approved, it will be the largest sewer privatization in the country.)
In town after town, the script is the same: “exploratory language” followed by sudden announcements of privatization bids when they are all but done deals and lavish promises of what the town will do with its newfound piles of cash. Once residents find out about the sales, they oppose them. And depending on the circumstances and ordinances, people in some towns manage to stop the takeovers, while others fail or remain locked in protracted legal struggles.
SAVE THE CHESTER WATER AUTHORITY
The site of Public Water Independence Day was the Octoraro Reservoir. Through the stewardship of the Chester Water Authority, the reservoir provides water for Chester and Delaware counties, as well as hiking, fishing, birding, farming, and a picturesque palette of greens and blues that stretches across the horizon. The 2,000-acre reservoir, along with CWA’s pipes and facilities, constitutes one of the state’s biggest water systems and is among Big Water’s most sought-after spoils.
CWA supplies water drawn from the reservoir and the Susquehanna River to about 200,000 people. Its advocates point to its award-winning track record, its ongoing infrastructure development, and the fact that despite offering affordable rates, it has never, in its 83-year history, been in financial distress.
In the 1950s, CWA built a dam on the Octoraro Creek to form the reservoir and planted 30,000 trees each year for a dozen years, creating a healthy and protected watershed and a forest that is open to the public. The authority also maintains and upgrades its infrastructure: Most recently, as part of a multimillion-dollar project, it installed acoustic listening devices along its main transmission lines to monitor for leaks. CWA is not a system in distress, but it is fighting for its life.
The pretext for selling the authority to Aqua is to bail out the bankrupt city of Chester, which incorporated CWA in 1939 but has since played no role in its operations and makes up less than 20 percent of its customer base. The proposed acquisition, said Franklin, the Essential Utilities CEO, “has nothing to do with the capabilities of the authority, and everything to do with Chester being a poor, third-class city, which is trying to dig itself out of bankruptcy by selling one of their only remaining assets.”
continued in Part 3