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A county superior court judge has ruled that the city of Stockton, California, illegally privatized its water and sewer operations in 2004 and must retake control of the facilities within six months.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Humphreys ruled that the city’s failure to perform a required environmental review was “improper”.

The ruling was a surprise victory for environmentalists and other activists, who have fought for three years against the US$600-million contract between the city and OMI-Thames Water.

The ruling rejected the city’s claim that it was sufficient to review the environmental impact of each individual OMI-Thames construction project, and that it did not have to consider the overall impact of the contract.

The Concerned Citizens Coalition, Sierra Club and League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County joined forces to sue the city on the basis that the contract allowed projects that could damage the environment.

In her ruling, Humphreys found there is “substantial evidence” that the 20-year deal between the city and OMI-Thames “will have significant environmental impacts.”

The city says privatization has saved taxpayers millions of dollars and helped Stockton comply with state water pollution standards, and that OMI-Thames’ environmental record is sound. Environmentalists claim the water and sewer utilities have been poorly maintained and that sewer spills have damaged the environment.

However, the controversy surrounding the privatization deal has always been about more than the environment,” reporter David Siders noted in the local paper The Record. “Opponents said the way in which it was approved - it was signed 13 days before voters approved a measure that would have required a public vote on the water deal - was evidence of then-Mayor Gary Podesto’s heavy-handed style.”

OMI-Thames said in a press release that it will continue to run the city’s waterworks while the ruling is being reviewed. Although the city could consider an appeal, council has not yet decided what to do.

With notes from The Record