In British Columbia, the Powell River Water Watch Coalition recently sponsored a meeting where residents strongly voiced their desire to keep it public and their dissatisfaction with the City’s rush and the complete lack of public consultation. Coalition membership currently includes CUPE Local 798, the Council of Canadians, three ratepayers groups – Townsite, Cranberry, and Wildwood – and the Sierra Club (Malaspina Group).
The goal to maintain public ownership
Residents packed the local recreation centre on July 21 to talk about the City’s plans to turn public wastewater treatment over to Catalyst Paper, a private company. The meeting opened with an overview by Karen Skadsheim, who noted that the goal of the coalition is to maintain public ownership of water and water-related utilities.
Skadsheim’s slide presentation addressed why Powell River needs a new treatment plant and detailed the options, process and problems with the City’s agreement in principle, which includes capping Catalyst’s taxes and giving the corporation a twenty-year contract. She noted that the City of Quesnel pays less than half of what the Powell River plan calls for as payment to Catalyst.
“If taxpayers pay this unnecessary fee, it amounts to taxpayers subsidizing Catalyst’s operations,” said Skadsheim. Reviewing the timeline of the agreement, and added, “We don’t even have a business plan yet.”
Public consultation is essential
Powell River-Sunshine Coast NDP MLA Nicholas Simons said that in the legislature he asked Minister Bill Bennett to ensure that public consultation was in the forefront. Simons said that we have public infrastructure that needs construction and it should be kept in public hands. He noted that there are no funds specified for the wastewater treatment project in the public treasury. He called into question where the money was coming from.
Maggie Hathaway was the only member of Powell River municipal council to attend this important public meeting.
Privatized water schemes don’t work
CUPE National anti-privatization coordinator Robin Roff shared experiences from communities that had privatized water services and gave strong evidence of why these schemes don’t work. In Hamilton, Ontario, contracting out the treatment plant to a private operator led to increased user charges and exorbitant costs to the City – including legal costs to sue the private company when it refused to take responsibility for a spill of 182 million litres of raw sewage that flooded almost 200 homes.
More recently in Brussels a group of private companies known as Aquiris not only failed to deliver on its promise to provide a cutting-edge treatment system, the one it designed was for industrial, not urban sewage and could not properly process the City’s waste. Aquiris demanded an additional 40 million Euros and, when the City tried to enforce the contract, shut the plant down for 10 days and dumped the untreated wastewater from 1.1 million people into the local rivers.
“Because of these and countless other similar stories, many Canadian municipalities are opting to keep wastewater treatment publicly operated,” said Roff. She noted that Vancouver Island’s Capital Regional District just voted to pursue public operation of its planned wastewater system.
We must demand real consultation
The final speaker was Trish Cocksedge, representing the Powell River Water Watch Coalition. She spoke about the state of democracy and the importance of accountability and transparency in good decision-making. She urged local residents to, “Start demanding real consultation, not backroom deals and then superficial communication about those deals.”
She noted that when people stand up to big business, big money and big development, they have been labeled as CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Cocksedge said that the Powell River Water Coalition is CAVE people – Citizens Advocating Values and Ethics.
After an impassioned question and answer period, participants put stars on a poster to indicate whether they supported public treatment of wastewater in Powell River or the Catalyst option. The tally of those who voted: Public 54 / Catalyst 0.