In 2004, Veolia, the largest water corporation in the world, made the town of Lee an offer: In exchange for control over the town’s water system, the company would cut costs by $6 million over the next 20 years. The community’s reaction was immediate.
Community members demanded that the town selectmen obtain more information before moving ahead. They wrote letters to the local paper, the Berkshire Eagle, discussing the pitfalls of privatization and the failure of water privatization elsewhere in the country. People simply did not want to lose control of water to a company concerned only with the bottom line. Organized resistance soon followed with the formation of Concerned Citizens of Lee. They began screening the film Thirst, which details corporate takeovers of public water systems in communities like Lee.
Leading the opposition against Veolia and water privatization was Deidre Consolati, a member of Concerned Citizens of Lee. In a letter to the Berkshire Eagle, Consolati wrote:
“The David-and-Goliath story line is a good one: An Italian neighborhood backs its sons and coalesces with townspeople and is joined by other foes of privatization in Berkshire County, who fight it for wider political and economical reasons, and together the unlikely coalition seeks victory over Veolia‚ moneyed campaigners and the global influence of Vivendi in France. A win would be sweet indeed.”
As the town selectmen prepared to vote on the proposal, the opposition became stronger and more vocal. A protest was staged outside of the Town Hall. A group of residents, most of whom were members of the Department of Public Works, held signs asking drivers to honk their horns in support of local control. Local residents posted ads in local papers to counter privatization and to gather support on the day of the vote.
Consolati wrote in the Advocate newspaper, “In the 19th century, Gold-Rush miners stormed the American West in search of wealth. Today across the United States, a water and sewer giant by the name of Veolia is doing the same.”
About 150 people turned up to discuss the issue at the vote, even though only town selectmen were allowed to speak. Finally, after a long, hard-fought battle, the vote was taken. The town selectmen, who initially favored the deal, responded to the public outcry by voting overwhelmingly (41-10) against the deal.
Victory for Lee!
On a crisp fall Saturday morning in October 2008, a crowd of 50 people gathered to celebrate the opening of the town’s new publicly owned and operated wastewater treatment plant. The project, four years in the making, was highly controversial at its inception. However, once the town of Lee took control of the project, everyone involved came together to make the design and construction of the project a success. The town of Lee now has a new wastewater treatment plant that will keep raw sewage from flowing into the Housatonic River during storms and will protect the town’s water.