March 24, 2016

The Hill: Sparking democratic control of water in flint and beyond

By Kelly Louaillier, The Hill

The vultures are circling. As people in Flint, Michigan organize to demand justice from a system that failed them horrifically, the private water industry is jockeying to position itself as the solution—not just in Flint, but nationwide.

But if we are to learn anything from the enormous human tragedy in Flint, it’s that we need more democracy, not less, when it comes making sure people have clean, safe water. To bring justice to the people of Flint and avoid similar tragedies, we as a nation must treat water access as the human right it is and prioritize the democratic control of water over private profit and financial gain.

The root of Flint’s water woes have been traced to Michigan’s anti-democratic emergency management system, a demonstration of this country’s systemic racism at work. It forced a corporate model on mostly black cities, giving emergency managers near-absolute power to balance the budget by whatever means they deemed necessary. It was under this system that Flint’s emergency manager made the disastrous decision to switch the city’s water source, which led to the poisoning of the people of Flint.

When Flint residents began sounding the alarm about their water quality, the city’s emergency manager brought in the private sector. He hired Veolia, one of the world’s largest water corporations, to review the city’s water treatment process and evaluate its compliance with regulations. But Veolia raised no flags on lead poisoning when it discovered the lack of corrosion control in the water system. It even downplayed residents’ health concerns, stating that “some people may be sensitive to any water.” Because of role in prolonging the time people in Flint were exposed to lead, the corporation is now named in multiple lawsuits filed by Flint residents.

But perversely, the private water industry is pouncing on the tragedy in Flint to position itself as the solution. Just a few weeks after news about Flint’s water broke nationwide, The National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) released a statement to assure the public that private water corporations “stand ready to offer expertise and solutions to local, state, and federal officials.”

At the same time, a senator from New Jersey—the U.S. home of Suez, another of the world’s largest private water corporations—introduced a bill that would allow Suez, Veolia and their cohort to access unlimited municipal bond money—a corporate subsidy that would promote privatization and cut into tax revenue. Similar bills have failed in the past four sessions of Congress, but the private water industry is taking advantage of the crisis in Flint to try to push through this bill.

Another bill purporting to address water quality issues like those in Flint would appropriate $50 million for grants that could go directly to private corporations and fund “public private partnerships,” a form of privatization. The bill’s sponsor has received financial support from the private water industry.

Even an aid package for Flint with bipartisan support in Congress opens the door to privatization. This legislation designates $100 million for State Revolving Funds that could be used to begin replacing lead pipes in Flint—but also allows corporations to profit off Flint’s crisis by providing the first substantial funding for a controversial new program, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which allows private industry to access hundreds of millions of dollars in low-interest government financing.

To be sure, we are in urgent need of fixing our country’s aging water infrastructure. But neither running our government like a corporation or handing control over to corporations is the answer. We should be investing our tax revenue in our public water infrastructure—not offering it up to private entities. The lack of democratic decision-making in Flint precipitated this disaster. Bringing in the private sector will only lead to less democracy and transparency. Residents of Flint are clear that they do not want the private water industry to step in. They are demanding the federal government free up funds to fix their water system—and keep it public.

We must stand with the people of Flint to ensure they see justice. And, we must rebuff the private water industry’s attempt to advance its agenda by exploiting the situation in Flint. Our elected officials should be developing solutions that provide greater public funding for water systems and codify democratic control of water systems, so that no other city ever faces the preventable tragedy Flint confronts today.


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