Infrastructure Deal: Wrong Priorities for the Crises We Face

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Climate and Energy

Senate Democrats and the White House have released some details about the bipartisan infrastructure deal. 

In response, Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones released the following statement:

“It’s clear that as it stands this plan’s approach to the multiple crises we face is backwards. It underfunds our water systems and overfunds the industries killing our planet. 

“The level of water funding laid out in this deal is wholly inadequate compared to the monumental challenges we face in providing clean drinking water to all and building climate-resilient infrastructure. The framework appears to limit privatization incentives to transportation projects, and as more details emerge, it is imperative that we hold the line on preventing any wasteful, expensive privatization schemes from being included in this package.

“At the same time, this deal proposes spending billions of dollars on expensive and totally ineffective carbon capture technologies and related infrastructure. This is nothing more than a new set of fossil fuel subsidies that already cost taxpayers $15 billion a year. This is a gift to the fossil fuel polluters that have cynically seized on promoting carbon capture as a climate solution, when it is nothing more than a means of prolonging the dirty energy era.

“As the details of this deal are fleshed out, we implore lawmakers to do more to provide robust funding for our urgent water needs, and to strike out wasteful fossil fuel subsidies.”

Teaneck Residents Submit Petitions for 100% Renewable Energy Program

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Climate and Energy

On Thursday, Teaneck residents submitted nearly 850 petitions to the Township Clerk in support of an ordinance to create a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program for the town, which would authorize the town to bulk purchase electricity from clean renewable sources and offer it to residents at discounted rates. 

Renewable content would start around 50% and increase each year, reaching 100% renewable by 2030. Residents would still have their service, distribution, and billing handled by PSEG.

“New Jersey currently requires only 22.5% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and it even counts things like trash incineration and biogas as clean energy,” said Teaneck resident, David Strait. “A renewable CCA program will give Teaneck residents the opportunity to source our electricity from REAL clean sources like solar and wind. This will cut greenhouse gas emissions and as more and more towns adopt these programs it will clean up air quality in our region.”

For over a year, Teaneck residents urged the town council to pass an ordinance authorizing this program as a way to fight climate change and give residents access to a discounted renewable energy option on their electricity bill. Repeated requests to move this program towards a vote were ignored, so residents decided to take things into their own hands and use direct democracy to bring a CCA ordinance  to a vote. 

Under the Faulkner Act, Teaneck residents have the right to initiative and referendum, meaning that any ordinance can be introduced by a petition with signatures from 10% of the number of residents who voted in the most recent state assembly election.

“When we were out collecting signatures on the CCA petition, it was so exciting to see the enthusiasm of Teaneck voters. Why not? It’s about getting renewable energy for all of Teaneck. It’s about working toward cleaner air. It’s about LIFE,” said Paula Rogovin, Teaneck Residents and Chairperson of Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains. “We will not give up this effort. Our future and the future of our youth is so important!” 

“In less than ten years’ time, some of the most detrimental effects of climate change will be irreversible. This is why it is salient that we create change now to protect ourselves and our futures,” said Luna Taveras, a Teaneck resident and high school student. “Greenhouse gas emissions are the leading cause of climate change so switching to clean energy with CCA is a cost-effective alternative that will be beneficial to the residents of Teaneck, as well as people and life everywhere.”

Once the Teaneck clerk certifies the petition, the council will have an opportunity to vote on the matter. If they vote yes the ordinance will become law; if they vote no or decline to hold a vote before September, it will go to the ballot this November as a referendum.  

Food & Water Watch has worked with residents to win similar 100% clean energy programs in Edison, New Brunswick, Collingswood, Asbury Park, Piscataway, East Brunswick, South Brunswick and Red Bank, and has a goal of enacting the policy in 10 addition towns and cities this year to put more than one million New Jersey residents on a path to achieve 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030.

“We’re hopeful that the Teaneck council will see the local enthusiasm for this program in the 850 petitions signed in support of renewable CCA and will vote to pass the ordinance this summer,” said Sam DiFalco, an organizer with local environmental group, Food & Water Watch. “Towns across New Jersey have already had great success with this program as a way to provide residents with a truly renewable option and save ratepayers money in the process. New Brunswick, which adopted this program in 2018, saved residents on average $100 per year on their electricity bills. And nearby in Glen Rock, residents enrolled in the town’s CCA program will see savings on their bills this summer as PSEG’s rates increase. We urge the Teaneck council to listen to their constituents and adopt this program.”

Budget Deal Still Short on Climate Details

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Climate and Energy

As Senate Democrats advance their $3.5 trillion budget blueprint, climate advocates are enthusiastic about the reported inclusion of a ‘clean electricity standard’ (CES), which is considering the most important element of the White House climate agenda. 

But there is no information about how such a program will be structured, and what sources will count as ‘clean.’ Several CES proposals count fracked gas as a clean power source, and rely on offsets and other accounting schemes to achieve their goals. Those obvious shortcomings have prompted hundreds of organizations to call for a truly clean renewable electricity standard (RES). And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has backed those calls, endorsing the view that gas is not a source of clean power. 

In response, Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones released the following statement: 

“While it is imperative that this Congress take bold action to fight climate change, it would be wise to wait for the details of the Senate’s budget reconciliation agreement, since the devil is always in the details.

“There should be some clear must-haves. This package must eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, as Senator Wyden has said this week. It must not call fracked gas ‘clean,’ as Senator Schumer has said this week. And it cannot play sleight of hand tricks by calling fracked gas with carbon capture ‘clean.’ 

“We look forward to continuing to work with climate champions in Congress and activists across the country to assure that the climate provisions of this package truly deliver the policies we need to avert our worsening climate chaos.”

Cumberland County Privatization Scheme Could Lead to Decades of Trouble

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Clean Water

A national advocacy organization is warning that a highly flawed proposal to enter into a 30-year concession or asset sale of the Cumberland County sewer system would leave local families paying higher rates for decades.

Food & Water Watch — which is based in Washington, DC and has a New Jersey office — raised a host of concerns with the proposal in a recent memo to the Cumberland County Utility Authority Commissioners.

The proposed deal has sparked an intense controversy in the community over the past two months, leading CCUA executive director G. Steve Errickson to announce his resignation last  month, saying that the frenzied push to secure a deal has “made it impossible for me to continue to do my job.”

The CCUA issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to study monetization of the authority, shortly after receiving an unsolicited proposal from the private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners. The rushed proposal would represent a major change in the financial structure of the CCUA — and one that could cost ratepayers millions of dollars over decades.

“Local residents have been shocked by this proposal, and rightly so. This is a recipe for decades of disaster,” said Food & Water Watch organizer Jocelyn Sawyer. “We already know what comes next under these kinds of privatization deals: Higher rates and a lower quality of service. Cumberland County should heed these warnings and listen to the residents who are alarmed by a rushed privatization scheme.” 

As Food & Water Watch warned in its memo, the CCUA’s solicitation is heavily tilted in favor of privatization: “The first task under the scope of work explicitly requests responders to ‘design a program to allow the CCUA to leverage private sector expertise to plan, engineer, finance, construct, and operate water and wastewater infrastructure improvements.’” 

In another highly unusual move, the solicitation essentially invites conflicts of interest from corporate interests that would be seeking the privatization contract itself, which “dangerously opens the door to allow a corporation or private equity firm to evaluate its own proposal for a 30-year concession deal or asset sale.”

A privatization scheme of the sort under consideration in Cumberland County is essentially an incredibly expensive loan. A company would offer upfront fees in exchange for decades of operating income — meaning that the homeowners and small businesses will be the ones to pay off the deal for decades to come in the form of rate hikes necessary to ensure the private equity firm’s profits. 

Other communities have learned these lessons the hard way. Residents of the city of Bayonne have experienced diminished service and 50 percent rate hikes since a 2012 concession deal, with more years of pain to come. Middletown, Pennsylvania has tried without success to exit a lopsided concession deal that has even seen residents paying penalties for conserving their water usage. 

“Considering this rushed proposal is moving forward without any justification of a needs assessment, we’re concerned that our community will be saddled with the same rate increases that other communities have suffered,” said Sandy Acevedo, a county resident and member of Cumberland County Sewer Rate Watch. “We’re urging our elected officials to act by recognizing the financial burden this will place on the entire CCUA residential and business communities, stop the RFQ.”

Hoboken Council Opposes PVSC Fracked Gas Plant

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Climate and Energy

On July 7, the Hoboken City Council passed a resolution opposing the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s (PVSC) plans for a new fracked gas power plant in Newark and called on Governor Murphy to direct the agency to shift to a renewable energy alternative. 

“This is an important effort to get PVSC to alter their priorities and embrace sustainable practices that will both promote environmental justice, locally, and help address the broader goals of working to reverse the impacts of climate change more globally, going forward,” said Hoboken Councilman James Doyle.

The power plant would be built at PVSC’s massive sewage processing facility in the Ironbound section of Newark as part of a resiliency project proposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The superstorm caused the sewerage plant to lose power and spill billions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into the Passaic River. The project would provide backup power to the treatment plant when the grid is down, but PVSC also plans to run the facility to offset their power needs from the grid at other times.

While local community members and advocates agree about the importance of improving infrastructure resiliency in the face of a worsening climate crisis, they are demanding a clean renewable energy project that will not increase the pollution burden in the Ironbound and the surrounding region, which has historically faced the brunt of New Jersey’s pollution burden and decades of environmental injustice.

“I’m proud that Hoboken is yet again leading the way in fighting for environmental justice and advocating for our environmentally overburdened neighbors in the Ironbound section of Newark,” said Liz Ndoye, of Hoboken MoveOn and a 40-year city resident. “By supporting the resolution asking Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority to use alternative energy for their proposed power plant, the Hoboken Council has given notice that they will not tolerate environmental inequity.”

“If Governor Murphy wants to live up to his clean energy, environmental justice, and climate commitments, then he must direct his own agency to stop all plans for a massive new fracked gas power plant in the Ironbound,  and to redesign the project with a clean, renewable energy based source of power,” said Matt Smith, Food & Water Watch NJ State Director. “We commend the Hoboken City Council for being the first municipality to oppose plans for another fossil fuel project in this region. In order to protect our climate and the health of residents across our state, other municipalities must follow Hoboken’s lead and call on Governor Murphy to stop PVSC’s dirty energy proposal.”

Biden Executive Order Gives Farmers New Protections from Corporate Abuse

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Food System

Today, President Biden signed an Executive Order to address the rampant concentration across the U.S. economy, with several directives aimed squarely at the food and farming sector.

The order calls on the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce our nation’s antitrust laws and challenge previous mega-mergers that have left many segments of our economy in the hands of a small number of powerful companies. It also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take specific measures to protect American farmers, including replacing the Trump Administration’s weak rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act with ones that make it easier for farmers to bring forth cases of abuse suffered by the hands of powerful meat processors.

“Farmers have waited far too long for reforms to the Packers and Stockyards rules,” says Food & Water Watch Senior Food Researcher and Policy Analyst Amanda Starbuck. ”While serving in the Obama administration, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack delayed implementation of crucial rules that would have protected farmers, which opened the door for those rules to be gutted by the Trump Administration. We urge Vilsack to seize this second chance to set things right.”

The order calls for additional actions to aid farmers and consumers. This includes redefining the “Product of USA” label rules so consumers are not deceived into thinking they are buying American beef when in fact it was imported from abroad. It also urges FTC to limit the ability of farm equipment manufacturers to prevent farmers or independent repair shops from repairing their products. 

Starbuck added: “These are important first steps in addressing the stranglehold that corporations have on our farmers, food workers and eaters. The Biden Administration is making moves to address the growing corporate consolidation in the food system that farmers and advocates have pointed to for years.”

Activists Push Pallone to Go Big on Climate

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Climate and Energy

Climate activists rallied outside the New Brunswick and Long Branch offices of Rep. Frank Pallone, urging him to take stronger action to stave off climate catastrophe. 

The activists were motivated in part by stories published last week by Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed project that revealed the lobbying strategy of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil. Secretly recorded videos with company officials showed how Exxon works to curtail ambitious climate policies, and has taken a keen interest in Representative Pallone’s signature climate bill, the CLEAN Future Act, legislation that would allow fracked gas to be included in a ‘clean electricity’ standard. 

“We are seeing evidence of the climate crisis every single day, all across the planet — from floods and storm surges to devastating droughts and punishing heat waves,” said Food & Water Watch New Jersey State Director Matt Smith. “We need Representative Pallone to understand that the clock is ticking and we need immediate action to get off fossil fuels, not half measures that are blessed by corporate polluters like Exxon.”

“In light of the revelation of how Exxon lobbies Congress to ensure that no legislation will adequately address climate change, we now see why Frank Pallone’s CLEAN Future Act does nothing to ban fracking or new fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Joan Farkas, Chair of Our Revolution Monmouth County. “We are calling on Rep. Pallone to have the political courage to stand up to this industry and support legislation that ends fossil fuel subsidies, bans fracking and increases investment in renewable energy.”

“Representative Pallone’s CLEAN Future Act is too weak given the worsening climate crisis we are in,” said Carol Gay, President of the NJ State Industrial Union Council. “Bold action is needed immediately, not gradualism, if we are to preserve a future for generations to come, and if we’re to provide the good clean energy jobs we need right now.”

The rallies were organized by Food & Water Watch, Our Revolution, 350NJ, Progressive Democrats of America, NJ Industrial Union Council and Friends of the Earth.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Factory Farm Decision a Victory for Clean Water

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Food System

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state’s regulatory agencies are explicitly empowered to protect public health and welfare, regardless of whether the state legislature  specifically outlined such measures.

The case before the court, Clean Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”), involved a challenge to permit conditions that authorized the expansion of a large factory farm in Kewaunee County. Residents and local groups had successfully pressed for a stronger permit that would monitor groundwater quality and limit the number of animals at the facility.  The factory farm owner and the Wisconsin Legislature opposed these efforts, arguing in part that Wisconsin’s Act 21 dramatically limited the authority of state agencies to only those standards or conditions specifically considered and enumerated by the legislature.

Today’s ruling supports the position of the local groups (see this release from the Midwest Environmental Advocates), and finds that Act 21 does not inhibit the Department of Natural Resources from enacting policies that protect natural resources and communities from the effects of pollution. A ruling otherwise would have severely hamstrung state agencies in their abilities to protect public health and welfare.

In April, the Supreme Court accepted an amicus brief filed by Food & Water Watch on behalf of environmental, public health, and sustainable farming advocates, who argued that Wisconsin law and common sense empower state agencies to protect the public health and welfare from pollution caused by factory farms (otherwise known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations). 

“The court’s decision affirms a simple fact: state agencies have the authority to protect the public from factory farm pollution,” said Tyler Lobdell, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch. “Kinnard Farms and members of the state legislature sought to rewrite the law to prohibit common sense protections, despite ongoing pollution of the environment and people’s drinking water. Today’s decision will have far reaching effects for a range of environmental protection measures across Wisconsin.”

Schumer and Pelosi Must Reject Privatization in Infrastructure Proposals

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Clean Water

Over 200 organizations released a letter to key Senate and House leaders urging them to oppose any provisions in the pending infrastructure proposals that would pave the way for the privatization of water. 

The letter, organized by the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch, warns that the bipartisan Senate framework championed by the White House “would promote a slew of privatization activities,” including public-private partnerships, private activity bonds and ‘asset recycling.’ This approach amounts to a “Wall Street takeover of essential services like public water.”

The letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Budget Committee Chair Sanders, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth. It was signed by national organizations like AFSCME AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, Center for Biological Diversity, Family Farm Defenders, Friends of the Earth, and local groups from nearly 40 states.

“This White House-approved infrastructure deal would lead to communities handing over public infrastructure to Wall Street profiteers,” said Food & Water Watch Public Water for All Director Mary Grant. “Communities across the country have been ripped off by public-private schemes that enrich corporations and leave the rest of us to pick up the tab. Communities need real support, like the WATER Act, not sneaky privatization scams.”

The letter points out that as federal funding has fallen dramatically over the past several decades, communities have been forced to depend on either regressive rate hikes or privatization to finance necessary infrastructure improvements. But privatization amounts to an extremely costly form of borrowing — one that requires families and small businesses to pay much more in the long run in the form of higher rates. 

“Our water systems are struggling because the federal government has chosen to divest from water infrastructure,” said Nayyirah Shariff, the Executive Director of Flint Rising. “We have a funding issue. Privatization is not the answer because it will contribute to unaffordable drinking and wastewater bills. We need bold investment that includes grants for our water utilities, like the WATER Act.”

“Privatization, especially asset recycling, isn’t true investment,” said Donald Cohen, the Executive Director of In the Public Interest. “Every public dollar that ends up in the pockets of water corporations and investors is one less dollar we can use to fix America’s crumbling water infrastructure.”

“The U.S. is long overdue for bold federal investment in our public water systems — but the proposal on the table will not get us there. Instead, it promotes privatization schemes dressed up as ‘public-private partnerships’ and ‘asset recycling,’ which create dangerous, avoidable problems and ignore people’s needs,” said Neil Gupta, Associate Research Director at Corporate Accountability. “Water privatization has failed communities across the country and must be rejected in all its forms. We need an infrastructure plan that directly invests federal dollars in communities, keeps water systems in public hands, and equitably addresses our nation’s infrastructure crisis for the long haul — not more corporate handouts.”

The country already faces a water affordability crisis, as the letter notes: “Nearly one in three US households struggles to afford their water and sewer bills, and households nationally have accrued billions of dollars of water debt during the pandemic. They cannot afford the price of privatization.”

Instead of privatization deals that trap communities in costly deals for decades, the letter points to the need to dedicate federal funding to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The most comprehensive funding solution on the table is the WATER Act (HR1352, S916), which would provide $35 billion a year to fully fund our water infrastructure at the level that is needed to address our urgent needs. 

House Invests in Water, More Support Needed

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Clean Water

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the House of Representatives passed the INVEST Act (HR 3684), which provides funding authorizations for drinking water and wastewater improvements, including $45 billion to eliminate lead service lines and $4 billion in household water debt relief tied to a five-year water shutoff moratorium. 

Among the provisions, the act will provide the largest reauthorizations of the State Revolving Fund programs: $12 billion for fiscal year 2022, which is 2.5 times the amount passed in the Senate. It will also support water access and affordability by increasing the amount of grants and other additional subsidization for disadvantaged communities to up to 50 percent of wastewater and 40 percent of drinking water State Revolving Loan funds; requiring a study water affordability, discrimination and civil rights violations; and authorizing low-income water and wastewater assistance programs.

In addition to authorizing $45 billion to remove lead service lines with a ban on partial lead service line replacements, it will authorize $1 billion over 10 years to filter lead from school water, require the EPA to establish enforceable regulations to limit PFAS (in particular PFOA and PFOS) in drinking water, and require the EPA to limit plastic pellet pollution. 

In response to the vote, Mary Grant, the Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch, issued the following statement: 

“We applaud the House for its commitment to eliminate lead service lines and provide significant household water debt relief with a five-year shutoff moratorium. Households are being crushed by billions of dollars of water debt and need this relief urgently. And while this legislation offers a bolder response than the Senate’s water bill, the funding levels for water improvements are still not enough. We must seize the opportunity provided by ongoing infrastructure negotiations and ensure the critical, transformative water funding the country really needs. Inclusion of the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act in any infrastructure package would provide a permanent water solution and ensure stronger, more resilient and more accessible water systems. 

“Congress must reject the White House’s ill-conceived bipartisan framework that would privatize water systems through public-private partnerships and asset recycling. Our communities cannot afford that compromise on water.”