Statement by Jocelyn Sawyer, New Jersey Organizer, Food & Water Watch
“Last month, we sued the city of Camden to force it to release data on water shut-offs in the city. Instead of initially providing the information, city officials referred us to the system’s private operator, American Water. American Water, accountable only to their shareholders--not the public--refused to respond to our request.
“Our suit challenged that the city must retain these records and make them available to the public, and the city, in response, has now done so. This shows how important it is for communities like Camden to have public control of its water, since such key information about public water systems is subject to open records requests and are a matter of public information. And as we suspected, the shutoffs have occurred in predominantly low-income areas. Shockingly, however, the city disclosed that neither it nor American Water keeps track of when it restores the water to these customers, so it has no idea how long these residents are going without access to water service.
“The importance of transparency in Camden’s water system has never been more urgent. Earlier this week, American Water announced it intends to sell the majority of its contract operations business to a unit of Veolia North America. The company is currently contracted to manage Camden’s water system; however Camden’s contract will be retained by American Water despite this deal.
“This is a strong indication that American Water doesn’t simply want to run Camden’s water system: it wants to own it.
“New Jersey American Water assumed operation of Camden’s water system in early 2016 under a 10-year deal after years of mismanagement of the city’s system by United Water (now called Suez). In 2015, New Jersey American Water was awarded $164 million in tax breaks to move its national headquarters from Voorhees, N.J. to Camden.
“Camden is located in close proximity to other systems owned by American Water in New Jersey. The company aggressively pursues acquisitions of municipal water systems near its existing network to provide a competitive advantage. It also looks to states with a friendly regulatory regime. New Jersey is one of the top states where American Water is focusing its business.
“Full Privatization of Camden’s system would prioritize profits for American Water over the interests of Camden residents. And it will hit residents in their pocketbooks. On average, private water utilities charge families 59% more on their water bills than public utilities.
“Private ownership could also bring more service issues, and even job losses, as the company operates in the service of shareholder returns, not what’s best for the community.
“It would also help shield critical issues from daylight. While key information about public water systems is subject to open records requests and are a matter of public information, private utilities claim that they are shielded from this requirement. This is the sort of dismissive attitude towards the public that we can expect with the sale of the system.
“We will watch the issue closely, and will work with the community to help resist the efforts by American Water to take full control over Camden’s water system.”
Contact: Jocelyn Sawyer, (607) 342-1235; [email protected]