NANAIMO, B.C. - Epcor wasn’t exactly “voted off the Island,” to borrow a popular TV phrase, but an August 23 decision by the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) to back away from the private water corporation seemed a pretty good start.
Bowing to political pressure as a result of CUPE BC’s “Water Watch” campaign, which has galvanized local residents and prompted unwelcome media attention less than three months before community elections, the RDN now appears to be having cold feet on its way to the altar with Epcor, an Edmonton-based firm aiming to take over the region’s water services.
With more than 200 mid-Island residents flooding the RDN offices to demand that their water be kept public, and a CUPE delegation addressing the board’s regular meeting to shoot holes through a proposed public-private partnership between the RDN and Epcor, the board passed a unanimous motion to cancel negotiations with Epcor regarding the operation of water systems for 14 district areas currently under RDN administration.
“This is a very big victory,” CUPE Local 401 president Rodger Oakley said outside the RDN offices after the motion carried. “Now they know this issue is on the radar, and that they can’t fool the residents before elections on November 19.”
CUPE Research representative Blair Redlin addressed the board first, drawing its attention to failed experiments with privatized water systems across Canada. He also cautioned the RDN that taking the P3 route can be an expensive proposition for local authorities that fail to consult the public.
“Not long ago, the Supreme Court of B.C. rejected a downtown redevelopment P3 in Maple Ridge because the municipality had not complied with the counterpetition requirements of the provincial law,” said Redlin. “In the end, Maple Ridge had to borrow $49 million from the Municipal Finance Authority to pay off the developer and proceed with the redevelopment without a P3.”
CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill–speaking not only as a union leader but also as a resident of Lantzville, which falls within the RDN–challenged the board to test the issue in public.
“I sincerely hope that the Regional District is not trying to sneak through this deal by entering into a short term contract with Epcor that would allow the RDN to escape the five-year trigger point for a referendum that’s required by law, thus avoiding controversy before this fall’s elections,” said O’Neill, drawing applause from the gallery.
“If that is the case, then we will hold you to complete compliance with every specific requirement of the Community Charter with regard to referenda and/or counter petitions. Furthermore, if the Regional District intends to go to a 21-year contract, then we challenge you to call that referendum right now, and pose an honest question…[such as] ‘Do you prefer that the French Creek water system remain in private hands or be returned to the RDN for a region-wide public system?’”
There was at least one moment of high drama during the CUPE presentation. RDN board member Gary Korpan, the mayor of Nanaimo, demanded to know why a Memorandum of Understanding between the RDN and Epcor had not been placed before the board for review. Then it was revealed that the administration had provided CUPE with an early version of the MOU that includes the Arrowsmith Water Service area as an item up for grabs, rather than the most recent version which omits any reference to the AWS.
Earlier this year, Epcor applied to the provincial Comptroller of Water Rights to purchase the French Creek water system, including all of its assets. French Creek is the only service area within the RDN that is privately owned. Epcor’s application to buy the service area from Breakwater Enterprises Ltd. is now being reviewed in Victoria without meaningful public consultation. But that could change after the RDN board meeting.
“Epcor is going to regroup after this, that’s for sure,” said Oakley. “But now it’s going to be harder for them to get their hands on anything without the public being informed.”
Oakley, thanking O’Neill and Redlin for their presentations, also praised fellow CUPE activists and staff, including newly-hired campaign coordinator Leslie Dickout, for helping ensure the victory.