June 10, 2019

Victory! Public ownership of water system enshrined in Pittsburgh

This summer, Pittsburgh joined the ranks of cities and towns who are leading the way when it comes to advancing the human right to water. It enshrined the public ownership of its water and sewer systems in a legally binding agreement.

A few months earlier, in a letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Mayor Bill Peduto foreshadowed this development by urging public officials to join him in opposing any acquisition of the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA) and protecting this “publicly owned resource…for generations to come.” He stated:

“Pittsburgh’s water belongs to its people and the PWSA will never be up for sale.”

But Mayor Peduto didn’t always see things in this light. This victory was the result of three years of intensive local and national organizing to move him and others to oppose privatization and keep the city’s water under public control.

In 2012, Pittsburgh entered into a disastrous contract with Veolia, and two years later, under Veolia’s management, the corrosion control chemical was switched to a cheaper alternative—without securing the proper authorization. After that, lead contamination in the city’s water soared to dangerous levels.

As the city grappled with the lead crisis and the need for reinvestment in and restructuring of the PWSA, Mayor Peduto was actively entertaining so-called public-private partnerships (which are simply privatization under a different name) as the solution.

But Pittsburgh residents, having already experienced the harm done under Veolia’s management, knew that a public-private partnership was no solution at all. They were determined to keep their water under public control and find ways to restructure the PWSA so that it could run the utility more effectively.

That’s when Pittsburgh’s Our Water, Our Rivers coalition decided to launch their drinking water campaign. The coalition amplified residents’ demands and added organizing might behind them. And given Corporate Accountability’s deep expertise on Veolia and corporate campaigning, Our Water, Our Rivers asked us to support the coalition in 2016.

Together, we waged a multifaceted campaign to hold Veolia accountable and move public officials to find a public solution to their water woes. The campaign succeeded keeping the issue in the media spotlight and focused on issues of equity, affordability, and the need for transparency and community input. Through this campaign, the coalition a created public and political climate that made water privatization completely untenable.

As a result, city council members and ultimately the mayor came to understand that public control was the most effective way to ensure people’s right to clean water at affordable service rates.

Today, Pittsburgh is a leader in investing in and transforming a previously under-resourced water utility. Corporate Accountability members, both in Pittsburgh and around the country were critical in making this victory possible. And we will continue to campaign to hold Veolia accountable for its role in the lead crisis that has endangered the health of the people of Pittsburgh.

Together with water justice organizers around the country, we continue to advance the human right to water and keep our most essential resource in public hands.

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