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8th August 2022
continued from Part 2

The city, which has been struggling financially since 1995, was placed under receivership in 2020, when a casino—one of the few generators of revenue in the city—had to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Another major source of the city’s financial woes is a police pension system that was intentionally inflated in 2009. Disinvestment and corruption have fed a cycle that has caused great harm to the city’s population.

Chester’s demographics are a flip of Towamencin’s. Towamencin is three-quarters white; Chester is almost three-quarters Black. Sixty-five percent of Towamencin’s housing units are owner-occupied; 37 percent of Chester’s are. The median income in Towamencin is about $85,000; in Chester it’s just below $33,000. Yet a strong sentiment against privatization binds the two communities together.

Greek, the CWA foreman, grew up in Chester and was, in his words, “welfare poor”—his parents received public assistance for most of their lives. He rejects the idea that there are only two options for Chester: bailing it out by selling CWA or hanging it out to dry. (In fact, CWA offered to pay $60 million to Chester in exchange for keeping CWA in a trust for the next 40 years.) “I don’t ever want to say ‘Screw Chester’ out of all this, because you can’t. But is the state of Pennsylvania really helping them with grants and with other sources of money?” Greek asked. “The state doesn’t want to be bothered. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Can’t you guys handle it yourself?’ No, sometimes they can’t.”

Many residents of Chester agree that selling off a prized public asset is not the solution. About 100 locals have volunteered with the Save CWA campaign, among them Kearni Warren, who was born and raised in Chester and was recently a Green Party candidate for the city council. Sitting on a rock by the shore of the Octoraro Reservoir, Warren explained to me that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees the right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural environment. It even declares that “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come.” But, she said, Chester is an environmentally overburdened community with the largest incinerator in the country. “We don’t have clean air in Chester. But we do have clean water. Chester Water Authority is one of the only assets in Chester that has a positive impact on the community.”

“It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating,” Warren said with a sigh. “It’s just total disrespect that is taking place, because Chester is a predominantly Black city, and it’s poor. And so all the ills of society are dumped upon poor and Black communities. To take away a company that is not in distress, because Aqua wants to own the water and wastewater systems—that is an extractive economy.”

Warren said that when Aqua purchased the Springton Reservoir, eight miles north of Chester, the company closed off public access to it and sold off much of the land to an upscale senior housing facility. Warren told me she has fond memories of going to the spring at the reservoir with her grandfather. Now, she said, it’s a “space where only wealthy residents have access to walking paths and picnics and lake views out of their windows.”

Though many of Big Water’s acquisitions have been in small boroughs and towns, there will be tremendous consequences if the sales of CWA and the sprawling BCWSA go through. Some organizers have noted recent visits by Aqua representatives to Philadelphia’s city council offices and wonder if the Philadelphia Water Department, Pennsylvania’s largest system, is next on the docket.

Kevin Davis (whose name has been changed) has worked at BCWSA for over a dozen years and has two young kids. He told me he looked forward to what he hoped would be a long career. “I just always took for granted that my job would be secure and my future would be secure,” he said. Stability is the main thing that he and his coworkers have wanted from their jobs. “We’re not going to get rich here. I’m up to my shoulder sometimes in rags, digging deep into a pump, pulling stuff out. It’s not glamorous, but it’s stable. And everyone—everyone—agrees that having some sort of corporate entity come in here, it would be bad news.”


Pennsylvania’s ever-shifting political lines have made the state a focal point for strategists. This year’s elections include a populist Democratic nominee for the Senate and a far-right Republican running in a tight race for governor. Much of southeastern Pennsylvania, where water and wastewater privatization is currently concentrated, is traditionally Republican territory. But many of the counties in the region voted Democratic in the last few presidential elections.

The politics of the few dozen Pennsylvania water organizers that I met stretch across party lines. Cooper and Greek are both registered Republicans, but as Cooper told me, he now just votes for “the best candidate.” Margo Woodacre, a retired teacher who started the group Keep Water Affordable in New Garden Township, was briefly a Republican state senator in Delaware but has since changed party affiliations. Meanwhile, McMahon is a socialist, and Smith is a Bernie Sanders supporter. As we walked by her car earlier this spring, Smith pointed to its bumper, plastered with stickers for Bernie, Medicare for All, and an assortment of other left causes. “I’m not trying to be a cliché,” she said. “But it’s a bit of a cliché.”

Among the many new organizers, everyone seemed to note the ease of working across the binary of the political parties. As McMahon put it: “We had Trump voters collecting petition signatures next to me, and I was saying, ‘I am a socialist, by the way.’ We were all fighting this corporate takeover.”

Organizing against water privatization is not going to cover over this country’s political divides. Nor does it offer a shortcut to building a mass working-class politics. Challenging multibillion-dollar companies will also never be easy, but it does present an opportunity to link the growing disaffection with corporations and with the country’s two main parties to concrete steps forward.

Demands that run along a top-versus-bottom axis rather than a left-versus-right axis can provide political inroads. As Catherine Miller, who leads CWA’s anti-privatization campaign, told me, “This really is a nonpartisan issue. It’s more like public good versus corporate greed.”