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In 1994 Hamilton became the first major city in Canada to contract out water and wastewater treatment. Since that time, Hamilton’s ten-year experiment with private water has been marked by controversy, bankruptcy, raw sewage spills and buck-passing.

Yet despite loud and visible community opposition, and the efforts of six councillors to stall the vote, a majority of Hamilton’s 15-member council voted early in 2004 to pursue another ten-year contract with a private operator to run the city’s water system.

The decision was all the more outrageous given that local media report the current contractor – the fifth in ten years – is demanding the city pay it another $8 million.

The decision to again contract out water operations was hastily made, coming less than a month after staff presented two options to the city’s public works committee: a public, municipal model and a private contract. The controversial council vote effectively took the ‘municipal model’ off the table, despite an admission by city staff there were no savings under the private scheme.

Council moves to ram through deal

It became evident that those on council who favoured the private contract model along with senior city staff, wanted as little scrutiny and as little public input as possible,” says Gus Oliveira, president of CUPE 5167, representing Hamilton’s municipal workers. “The goal was to ram the contract model as quickly as possible to a vote.”

At the only public consultation prior to council’s vote, 17 organizations made presentations. Of those, 16 spoke out against private operations. The sole voice in favour was the current contractor – German-owned American Water, one of the largest for-profit water corporations in the world.

Appearing before the committee, CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan raised concerns about the lack of transparency, the loss of direct municipal control, and the for-profit motive of the private operator. As well, he criticized the contractors’ poor track record, citing concerns about environmental safety and the risk and liability for the city which was left to pay the clean up after millions of litres of raw sewage spilled into Hamilton harbour and the basements of local residents.

Ignoring these concerns, the committee recommended privatization. In response, CUPE and allies on council joined with environmental and community groups to form Hamilton Water Watch. With only a week before the January 28 council vote, Water Watch moved quickly to mobilize community opposition to for-profit water services.

Community rallies for public water

The group launched a community and media campaign that included radio and newspaper ads urging local residents to tell members of council they oppose a new ten-year private water contract.

At a well-attended rally in the foyer of City Hall prior to the council vote, the coalition called on councillors to take back public control of the city’s water system.

They also called for an independent audit of the existing contract. Loss of direct municipal control has meant key information about the contract, including the cost to the city for maintenance and repair of the system, has been withheld not only from the public but also from council members.

As a result, a councillor has been forced to file a Freedom of Information request to learn how much the city paid in capital costs at the water plants between 1994 and 2004. Under the terms of the contract the city pays for maintenance and repairs costing more than $10,000.

Despite the lack of information on the actual costs of the current contract and the outstanding legal battle with American Water, pro-privatization members of council carried the day.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve won. Hamilton Water Watch is continuing its campaign to bring water and wastewater operations back under full municipal control. They have no intention of giving up the fight.

Stella Yeadon