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Flint Residents Outraged After Discovering The City Is In Talks With Private Water Companies

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO

Once again, decisions are being made about Flint’s tainted water system with no public announcement or conversation.

Flint residents, whose longstanding complaints about water quality fell on deaf ears to disastrous effect, are experiencing some déjà vu over the next steps out of the city’s water crisis.

The city has quietly started seeking bids from private water companies. City residents say they only discovered the move when a researcher at the consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch unearthed a request for proposal (RFP) in a Global Water Intelligence report.

The RFP is for an analysis of the city’s water system, which, thanks to officials who neglected to add corrosion control chemicals to the water coming in from the Flint River, has been leaching dangerously high levels of lead into residents’ drinking water. The analysis would give recommendations for how the system needs to be upgraded to bring it into line with best practices and address the Environmental Protection Agency’s order to take corrective measures. This particular contract wouldn’t make Flint’s public water system private on its own.

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But, advocates and residents warn, a private company that nets the contract can use it as a foothold toward the ultimate goal of taking over the whole system. “At the end of that contract, they will typically make recommendations about other sorts of contracts that they could fulfill for a city,” explained Lynna Kaucheck, senior organizer at Food & Water Watch. “These private water companies will pick up the smaller contracts as a way to get a foot in the door and pave the pathway for privatization.”

The last thing we need is to be privatized

And residents and advocates don’t want to be blindsided this time. Veolia, a large private water company, already has history with Flint: it was brought in to assess the system after the city switched from Detroit water to the Flint River, and the company gave it a seal of approval. Yet it’s now known that the water was carrying high levels of lead.

That’s enough for Melissa Mays, a resident who was vocal from the start about the health effects she and her family suffered from the drinking water, to be wary of the whole process. “The way the RFP was written just leaves the doors wide open for private companies we don’t want anything to do with like Veolia,” she said. “They were already here, gave us an analysis and said the water was safe when it was anything but.”

Mays, Food & Water Watch, and other groups and residents decided to take their concerns public by holding a protest that demanded that the city reject any deals with private water corporations and “instead invest in democratically managed water systems and a full replacement of corroded pipes,” as they laid out in their demands. The protest was meant to “let the state and city know that we’re watching and won’t stand quietly this time,” Mays said.

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The specter of privatizing the water system, currently run as a public utility, lurks in many residents’ minds, particularly given that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) came into office from the private sector and promised to run government like a business. And residents already know what it’s like to have public entities run with little public input thanks to having been under state-appointed emergency managers since 2011.

“The last thing we need is to be privatized,” Mays said. “We’ve already suffered under what happens when you have no say over what happens to your water source.”http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/02/17/3750038/flint-water-bills-report/

Kaucheck’s group has long warned of the dangers of water privatization. “What we typically see when companies come in and privatize water systems…is rates increase, we see service decline, we see people laid off, and a lack of general accountability,” she said. A report Food & Water Watch released in February found that among the country’s 500 largest water systems, private, for-profit utilities charged 59 percent more for drinking water than those under local government control, which comes out to an extra $185 on people’s bills a year. In some places, private systems charged twice as much as public utilities. Flint residents can hardly afford to pay any more: at the time that their water was being contaminated by lead and other chemicals, they were paying the highest rates in the country. An earlier report that the group published found that private systems also tend to come with big job losses and service declines.

“With an essential resource, you really want public control over that,” Kaucheck added. “Any private company, their bottom line is making money.”

So far residents’ protests have at least reached the ears of their mayor, Karen Weaver. In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, her office said, “In the midst of all that’s going on surrounding the Flint Water Crisis and investigation into the matter, Mayor Weaver wants residents to know despite what some people are saying, the City is not looking to privatize operations at the water plant.” Mays said Weaver was grateful for the attention to the RFP. “She told me straight out she supported us,” Mays said. “She said she absolutely didn’t want the water to be privatized.”

But Mays vows to stay vigilant. “This was just snuck out there, we didn’t know, no announcement,” she said of the RFP. “We’re watching, and we’re not okay with privatization.”