Economy

Judge Says Poor Have No Right To Clean Water, Allows Detroit Water Shutoffs To Continue

CREDIT: AP

Protesters with the Detroit Water Brigade outside federal bankruptcy court in 2014

Saying there is no such thing as a legal right to clean running water, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes dismissed a request from Detroit residents to impose a six-month moratorium on water shutoffs by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) on Monday.

The plaintiffs had argued last week that the DWSD shutoffs over delinquent water bills violated the human rights of impoverished citizens who had no ability to pay what the city says they owe, and who were left without access to clean water by the shutoff policy.

“There is no such right or law,” Rhodes said, according to the Detroit News. He also rejected the idea that citizens have a right to “service based on an ability to pay.”

Those remarks are notable because Rhodes didn’t even have to speak to the substance of the plaintiffs’ arguments. Bankruptcy law doesn’t give him the power to force the city to take the sort of action the plaintiffs requested, so Rhodes could have dismissed the request on simple procedural grounds.

By choosing instead to rebuke the notion that the health and safety implications of being cut off from running water service due to dire financial straits constitutes a violation of Detroiters’ rights, Rhodes positioned himself opposite the United Nations. After activists made a formal request for U.N. intervention in June, a trio of U.N. experts called the DWSD’s aggressive approach to a multi-million-dollar backlog of water bills “a violation of the human right to water and other international rights.”

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on drinking water issues said that “when there is a genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” The city of Detroit has raised water rates by triple-digit percentages in recent years despite having one of the poorest customer bases in the country.

DWSD has been shutting off thousands of water pipes every month since the spring, with one brief break in late summer after the policy attracted months of negative press attention. Activists allege that the department has been far more willing to shut off water to individuals than to businesses even though delinquent bills from businesses are much larger on average and make up a disproportionate share of the total revenue DWSD is owed. (A DWSD official disputed that portrayal to ThinkProgress over the summer and promised to provide numbers proving those allegations are false, but never did.)

When the water shutoffs began, the city’s path out of bankruptcy was still rocky and complicated. The thorniest part of the city’s unpayable debts had always been the $5 billion in borrowing tied to the DWSD. When the future of the water department was up in the air, it made a certain brutal kind of sense to get aggressive about clearing up $175 million in unpaid bills in order to make the water department a more attractive asset in various negotiations.

Since then, the city has struck an agreement with neighboring counties to put a regional water authority in place — something that should help to make service more affordable for Detroit residents in the long run while also bringing in much-needed revenue for repairs to the aging pipes and filtration infrastructure. The chief financial officer of the DWSD told the Detroit Free Press that it must keep the pressure up on poor Detroiters in order to fulfill its agreement with the suburban counties and maintain its bond rating.

The total outstanding water bills have been cut in half to less than $90 million since the spring. As the water shutoffs were getting underway in April, Rhodes approved the city’s request to pay that same amount of money to a trio of banks over some legally questionable financial deals tied to casino revenue. Rhodes had previously said the city should sue to cancel those deals rather than buying their way out of the bad debts.