Fighting Water Privatization in Pennsylvania And Beyond

Categories

Clean Water

by Mia DiFelice

In July 2022, the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority shocked residents when it rushed an unannounced vote on a deal with Aqua PA. The deal would have allowed Aqua PA, the local arm of $12-billion corporation Essential Utilities, to exclusively negotiate a purchase of the County’s sewer system. 

The vote came after months of backroom dealing, following Aqua’s unsolicited offer during the height of the pandemic. Residents worried how Aqua would raise rates, as the company’s average rates are double the region’s. 

If passed, the sale would have been the largest of its kind in the U.S., with $1.1 billion on the line. And it would have handed a public resource to a corporation with a driving priority: profit.

Water and sanitation should be managed in the public interest. That’s how we’ll secure the human right to clean, affordable and accessible water for all. But private corporations don’t see water as a right. They see it as a commodity they can profit from. 

And nowhere is it easier for corporations to swoop in and gobble public water systems than in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Law Lets Water Corporations Get Away With Too Much

Across the country, about 1 in 10 people get their drinking water from private companies. But in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it’s 1 in 3. Water corporations have descended on Pennsylvania in recent years, thanks to legislation that greases the wheels on these deals. 

In 2016, Pennsylvania’s Act 12 allowed corporations to buy public utilities for more than their regular book value. Corporate proposals aren’t limited by the value of the system’s infrastructure. Now, they can approach municipalities with hugely inflated offers. And they do this because they can recover the acquisition’s full cost, plus 10-11% profit, by raising rates. 

After Act 12 passed, New Garden Township, PA, became the first municipality to agree to sell its sewer system. The result — rates jumped 30% when the acquisition was first announced, then an additional 37% after it was completed. 

Corporations Are Exploiting Federal Disinvestment 

With privatization deals, corporations exploit federal disinvestment in water infrastructure. Since 1977, federal funding for municipal water systems plummeted 77%. Disinvestment is one of the driving factors for water crises across the country. Many localities, especially in low-wealth and redlined communities, struggle to fund needed improvements when their residents can’t afford higher bills. 

We see the consequences now in Jackson, Mississippi. Following the recent water crisis that came to a head after decades of environmental racism, the corporate water lobby is now preying on Jackson to promote privatization and rationalize their unaffordable water bills in the media. 

However, privatization deals don’t usually fund infrastructure improvements. The sale becomes a backdoor to use water rate money for other purposes. That includes pet projects, paying off debt or avoiding property tax hikes. This practice isn’t just nontransparent — it’s fiscally irresponsible. It trades the permanent sale of a major asset for a one-time flood of cash.

And when privatization deals go through, ratepayers are hit hardest. Private water utilities typically charge 59% higher rates than public utilities. They’re also less likely to place protections against moratoriums on water shutoffs and less likely to have conservation programs (i.e., help their customers save money). 

In this way, privatization exacerbates our nation’s water affordability crisis. In the U.S., one in three households struggle to afford their water bills. Each year, an estimated 15 million people experience a water shutoff over unaffordable water bills. 

Water is a Right — Not a Profit Center

Running a water system comes with huge costs. The infrastructure and maintenance is expensive. Water systems are one of the most capital-intensive utilities. Because of this, water systems are natural monopolies. They face no competition. 

Privatization makes these monopolies dangerous, as private corporations are accountable first and foremost to their stockholders — and the pursuit of profit. They have less incentives to consider the wide-ranging effects of their rate hikes and infrastructure decisions. 

On the other hand, with local control, public institutions can check water system monopolies. Residents can vote in or out the public officials who oversee the utility. They can pressure their elected officials. They can share their concerns at public meetings. 

Ultimately, water service is not a tradable good that can be sold on a market. Rather, it is a public service that is essential for life. Privatization threatens our right to water with price hikes, service shut offs and decisions that put profits before people. 

A Victory Against Privatization in Pennsylvania

When news of the Bucks County deal first broke, residents went to work. Local group Neighborhoods Opposing Privatization Efforts organized to make their dissent clear. They mobilized for opposition from municipal leaders and pressured the Bucks County Commissioners to oppose the deal. Finally, in September 2022, the chair of the BCWSA confirmed that the deal was off — the sale wouldn’t go through.

As our Eastern PA organizer Ginny Marcille-Kerslake put it:

“This was a backroom corporate deal from the start, and it only stopped because local residents started to ask questions, voice their concerns, and hold their elected commissioners who have the power to change the BCWSA’s charter accountable. Getting the board to see the light and slam the brakes on this terrible deal is a huge win for clean water, public input, and democracy itself.”

The efforts of the residents of Bucks County show the power of people in the face of corporate takeovers. And it shows the value of public systems in which those most affected by changes have a voice in them. As the fight against privatization heats up in Pennsylvania and beyond, we’ll be standing with communities every chance we get. 

Right now, the Pennsylvania State Assembly is considering a bill that would make privatization even easier. You can help us stop the bill and defend against water privatization in PA.

Pennsylvanians: tell your representative to reject this water privatization bill!

Protecting Our Parks: A Win in PA Against Fracking

Categories

Climate and Energy

Photos by Volinic Visuals

by Mia DiFelice

When you think of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, you may think of our sports teams, our rivers or the steel that helped build our country. But we have other gems, and these are emerald green. 

Our County parks are huge and densely forested, the kind you can get lost in. They are oases of nature among the county’s highways and Pittsburgh’s city streets. College students lounge in the shade between classes; curious children learn about the natural world; families hike, picnic and kayak.

That’s why, this summer, the threat of fracking in county parks struck fear and anger among residents. In the culmination of years of organizing, Food & Water Watch worked with residents and local groups to pass a ban on fracking in the parks. And the long, winding fight made the victory all the sweeter.

Your support makes victories like this possible! You can hear more about this win — and what’s next — at Against All Odds, our annual benefit to protect our planet. 

We Know What Happens When You Frack In Allegheny

Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh and more than 100 other municipalities, is no stranger to polluting industry. The county has been a center for coal extraction, oil and gas, steel, cokeworks and most recently, fracking.

As early as 2013 Allegheny residents were fighting fracking in our parks. Grassroots organization Protect Our Parks collected 2,000 signatures toward a moratorium on fracking in these green spaces. A bill even passed through the County Council. But our then- and current-County Executive, Rich Fitzgerland, struck it down with a veto.

In 2016, the County leased Deer Lakes Park to drilling corporation Range Resources. Range Resources has a record of environmental crime, including spills and leaks at fracking sites. So it was devastating, but not surprising, when a 2019 water quality assessment found chemical contaminants associated with fracking.

The Parks Bill Gets A New Lease On Life

After the Deer Lakes lease, the dream of a fracking ban in our parks didn’t die. Food & Water Watch organizers picked it up again in 2021 and began planning. We started a coalition of old supporters and new. We connected with state groups like PennEnvironment and local groups like Protect Franklin Park. A new bill was written to target industrial activity in the parks, including fracking.

We then turned to Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam to sponsor the bill. From years working with Hallam, all the way back to her campaign for councilmember-at-large, we knew she would be the champion we needed. 

In March 2021, the bill headed to the Parks Committee, where the chair — a longtime friend of Executive Fitzgerald — let the bill die. But we didn’t lose hope.

We turned to Anita Prizio, another climate champion, to host the bill in her committee. The bill returned to the Council at the start of 2022 and was voted into Councilmember Prizio’s committee. We finally had an opportunity to get it passed.

Mobilizing Residents To Keep Fracking Out

By that time, we had already gathered a strong base of supporters and allies. In the months before the vote, we collected petition signatures and arranged meetings between residents and their councilmembers. We turned out calls, personal letters and door-to-door canvassers. We held rallies and helped dozens of residents make public comments. Ultimately, we mobilized thousands of residents in this fight.

The Parks Bill was finally introduced in Council in early July. And thanks to our strong show of people power, the ban passed by a landslide, with 11 votes out of 15.

But we knew the fight wasn’t over yet. We knew County Executive Fitzgerald, who vetoed the last Parks Bill, would do so again. Only this time, he had some tricks up his sleeve. 

While Fitzgerald signed his veto on July 6, he didn’t deliver it until a week later. This cut down the already-short deadline to hold an override vote. It also forced the vote to occur during summer recess, in a special meeting. 

Luckily, the bill’s cosponsors were absolute champions, and they ensured the special meeting would happen. They scheduled it a week after Fitzgerald delivered his veto. 

The special meeting opened to a packed house. Industry lobbyists descended onto Pittsburgh. Having been silent the entire campaign, they were suddenly eager to tout the benefits that fracking would bring. It was clear they didn’t think the bill would advance as far as it did — and it was clear we had them worried. 

The special meeting stretched over three hours. Thirty people spoke out in favor of the bill. And then finally, the Councilmembers cast their votes. 

Winning A Ban On Fracking In Our Parks

We only needed 10 votes to strike down the veto, but at the 11th hour, a final vote “yes” came through. To our surprise, we had flipped Councimember Bob Macey, a longtime friend of the industry. The final count was 12 votes to override, meaning that we had done it. We had passed a fracking ban in Allegheny County Parks.

The Pittsburgh Parks ban showed the power of the people to hold their elected officials accountable. At least three councilmembers did not personally support the ban, but said they voted for it because of the flood of comments from their constituents. 

It also showed the advantages of our strategy. Not only did we help supporters connect with their councilmembers; we also worked with councilmembers like Hallam, whom we had long relationships with. The support, trust and open communication we’ve built with them made this bill possible.

What’s Next For Southwestern Pennsylvania

The fracking ban in Allegheny parks is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, a state where the industry wields a lot of political power and is used to getting its way. The ban sends a clear message: Fracking is not invincible. The tide is turning.

We will no longer let polluting industry run rampant in our communities. And Food & Water Watch will be fighting with communities until we’ve banned fracking everywhere. Our Allegheny win has given us strategies and inspiration to replicate our success in municipalities across Pennsylvania and beyond.

Learn more from our PA organizer, Megan McDonough, at our annual benefit on September 29th.