Food & Water Watch is suing Camden in order to force the New Jersey American Water company to release details on water shut-offs in the city. At the same time, the group is concerned Baltimore would confront similar concealment of water shut-offs if the city entered a lease with the private companies courting Baltimore’s local government officials.
When water service is made unaffordable, there is often widespread water shut-offs. These shut-offs threaten public health, community wellbeing and basic human dignity. Without running water, people cannot cook, clean, shower, wash their hands or flush their toilets. Unaffordable water bills can lead to evictions and tax foreclosures, and water shut-offs have even led to children being taken from their homes under child protection laws.
There are obvious race and class dimensions to the growing national water affordability crisis. A study in Boston found significantly more shut-off notices in areas of the city with higher proportions of people of color. And in economically distressed cities, the proportion of people who experience water shut-offs is disturbing. In 2015, about one in five customers in New Orleans, Louisiana and Gary, Indiana had their service cut off.
When water service is handled by a publicly owned utility or municipality, data on shut-offs is a matter of public record. New Jersey American Water has a service contract to run the water system for the city of Camden, but neither entity will make information about shut-offs available to the public. This arrangement essentially hides shut-off information behind the veil of these private contracts.
“Access to clean, affordable drinking water is a human right,” said Rianna Eckel, Maryland Organizer at Food & Water Watch. “What’s happening in Camden is a foreshadowing of what could very easily happen in Baltimore if Mayor Pugh doesn’t stop privatization before it starts. The last thing our city needs is water bill rate hikes and shut-offs.”
In response to public opposition to privatization, yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh stated support of public ownership of the water system. However, public-private partnerships are a form of privatization wherein the city retains ownership but private companies control the operation and management of the system. Camden’s water system is also publicly owned but privately managed and operated.
A recently proposed amendment to the city charter would grant the mayor broader contracting authority over publicly owned infrastructure projects. The amendment could easily clear the way for the city to outsource or lease the water system to a private company possibly leading to water rate hikes, increased shut-offs, and an end to transparency about those shutoffs as in Camden.
“We know water privatization can bring higher rates and worse service. Now, we see how it could be used to hide vital information from the public about accessibility to safe, clean water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “People shouldn’t have to sue to find out basic information about their water systems from secretive companies.”