Congress Betrays American Public By Gutting Forever Chemical Action from NDAA

December 6, 2019
 Water

Passing the WATER Act Is Now More Important Than Ever


Washington D.C. – Politico reports that in the face of Senate Republican opposition, House Democrats have dropped their bid to include two vital pieces of per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFASs) regulation in the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This comes on the same day that the new film chronicling a 20-year judicial battle against DuPont, ‘Dark Waters,’ releases nationally.

The NDAA provisions would have finally designated PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, forcing polluters to pay to clean up the worst contamination, and would have set an enforceable limit for PFAS in drinking water.

In response, Food & Water Action Public-Water-For-All Director Mary Grant said:

“The exclusion of these provisions would be a betrayal to the American people. Congress has effectively sacrificed the health of our children, communities, and environment by removing these PFAS regulations from the NDAA. We know that American voters want action on PFAS now — across the country, states one by one are cracking down on PFAS contamination — but without federal action, thousands of communities across the country will continue to face toxic chemicals in our food and water.

“In the face of such inaction, it is now more critical than ever that Congress pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act to help states and communities remove these toxics on their own. The WATER Act would provide the funding needed to improve our nation’s water and sewer systems. We’re not giving up and we’ll be watching each and every member of Congress. It’s time to step up, cosponsor the WATER Act and take the urgent action needed to ensure safe water for all.”

 

Baltimore City Passes Monumental Water Affordability and Equity Bill

November 18, 2019
 Water

After banning privatization, Baltimore once again leads in water justice

Today, the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act, a sweeping overhaul of the city’s outdated water billing system. It sets up a percentage-of-income affordability program for low-income households, a customer advocate’s office with a mission of promoting fairness to customers, and a structure for appealing high bills and other problems commonly faced by customers. Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young introduced the bill last December when he was city council president and plans to sign the bill into law.

Baltimore has become the second city after Philadelphia to set up a percentage-of-income water affordability program. Detroit and Chicago are considering similar legislative efforts, and as the nation’s water affordability crisis deepens, other communities will likely pursue this model.

“Baltimore has shown its commitment to being a leader for water equity in this country,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Organizer Food & Water Action. “In November 2018, Baltimore became the first major city to ban water privatization, and with that vote, the city committed itself to a public solution for its growing water billing issues. This legislation is the culmination of years of efforts to improve the public system. The new percentage-of-income water affordability program will tackle our city’s water crisis head on and ensure all Baltimoreans have access to affordable water. ”

“I am committed to ensuring their successful implementation to make our water system work better for all Baltimoreans,” said Mayor Jack Young. 

“This legislation is focused on structural change — on accountability and transparency within the Department of Public Works,” said City Council President Brandon Scott.

UPDATE: Baltimore Water Equity Bill Next Vote on Monday

October 24, 2019
 Water

BALTIMORE WATER UPDATE: no water bill press conference on Monday, interview availability instead.

On Monday, October 28 the Baltimore City Council will hold a second reading and vote on the Water Accountability and Equity Act. Advocates will be available for interviews upon request before and after the vote. We are urging the Council to stand with the people of Baltimore, reject the proposed gutting of the legislation by the Department of Public Works Dir. Rudy Chow, and vote in favor of the bill.

If the majority of the Council votes to pass the bill through second reading, it will move to a third reading and final vote on November 4. At that vote, the council can approve the legislation and send it to Mayor Jack Young, the original sponsor of the legislation, for his signature.

Years of powerful grassroots campaigning across communities in Baltimore demonstrate the significant public support for the comprehensive bill to make water permanently affordable for low-income households and to create an independent and accountable dispute resolution process. 

Available for interview: 

  • President Brandon Scott (other Council Members are potentially available as well)
  • Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer, Food & Water Action
  • Reverend Dr. Alvin Gwynn Sr., Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore
  • Dean Dodson, SEIU 1199
  • Coty Montag, NAACP LDF 
  • A representative from the NAACP – Baltimore City Branch

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New Data Exposes Incompetence of Leadership of Baltimore Department of Public Works

October 8, 2019
 Water

Documents reveal water line repair program helped only 8 low-income water customers

Documents obtained by the Maryland Legal Aid reveal that the Baltimore Department of Public Works (DPW) has utilized only 2 percent of the special assistance fund set up to help low-income residents repair water infrastructure that homeowners are responsible for maintaining. The documents were released today to media sources by the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and can be accessed here and here.

In 2014, the City established the Hardship Fund for Emergency Water and Wastewater Services using proceeds from an exclusive arrangement with HomeServe, which provides optional service agreements to repair customers’ water and sewer lines on their private property. Through this contract, HomeServe is able to send their marketing materials using Baltimore’s city seal, making the solicitations appear as though they are actually coming from the city. The fund managed by HomeServe has $775,000 in allocated funds but has provided only $15,327 in assistance to low-income customers. In five years, only 8 customers have been helped.Screenshot shows only $15,327 of $775,000 in funds set aside for low-income water billing assistance in Baltimore have been used by the City's Department of Public Works.

“We requested this information through a Maryland Public Information Act request because we have struggled to have our clients enrolled in this program,” said Robin Jacobs, a Staff Attorney with Maryland Legal Aid. “We are concerned that the Department of Public Works is denying our low-income clients access to assistance that is available.”

“Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has tried for years to enroll our clients in this hardship program and we simply never heard back from the Department of Public Works,” said Amy Hennen with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Our clients are really suffering and we fear that the Department of Public Works is unjustly denying them aid. That is why we urge the city council to pass the WAEA to create a strong, independent Customer Advocate’s office that can ensure low-income households are receiving available assistance.”

The Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA), which will go to a second-reader vote before the Baltimore City Council on October 28, will create two things: an income-based water affordability program to provide assistance based on need and a new Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals to provide independent problem-solving investigations for all customers of the water and sewer system.

“The Customer Advocate would review whether customers are being unfairly denied support from the Hardship Fund and similar programs, including water bill discounts for the elderly and the ill, and the reimbursement program for sewage backups,” said Jaime Lee, Associate Professor and Director of the University of Baltimore School of Law Community Development Clinic. “Just as importantly, the Advocate would also increase transparency and propose systemic changes at DPW to help ensure that these programs aren’t just empty promises, but are actually used to improve the lives of Baltimore City residents.”

On September 26, DPW Dir. Rudy Chow introduced amendments to WAEA, which would remove the affordability program, water shutoff protections, shutoff notification requirements, and the entire Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals. In their place, Dir. Chow proposed codifying the Department’s existing assistance program and procedures as well as his new appeals process with the Environmental Control Board — none of which would provide additional relief or help to customers denied access to the Hardship Fund or the reimbursement program for sewage backups.

“Dir. Chow has proposed a complete gutting of WAEA and it is unacceptable,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director of Jews United for Justice. “His amendments undermine the principles and objectives of the legislation, attempting to deny Baltimore residents the true affordability, accountability and equity in our city’s water billing system that we deserve and is long overdue. We need the City Council to rise to the challenge, stand with the people of Baltimore, and reject his weakening amendments.”

“This new information about the Hardship Fund shows yet again Dir. Chow cannot be trusted to assist low-income water customers in Baltimore,” said Mary Grant from Food & Water Action. “On the heels of his proposed gutting of WAEA and the recent report that his department is denying 85 percent of reimbursements for sewage backups, this new data points to a trend with his leadership and a refusal to work in the interest of the people of Baltimore. Baltimore needs an independent Office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals through the WAEA to inject accountability and justice into these decisions.”

Baltimore Advances Water Justice Measure

September 26, 2019
 Water

By Jackie Filson

Three years of grassroots work later, a cutting-edge piece of water justice legislation in Baltimore has finally advanced.

The History of Baltimore Water Justice

In 2016, community members outraged by widespread issues with unaffordable and incorrect water bills formed the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition. Since then, the group has worked tirelessly to pass legislation that would mandate a more just and accessible public water program. They want to cap water bills for low-income households at a level they can afford to pay based on their income and provide a vital problem-solving framework to resolve customer disputes.

The bill, named the Water Accountability and Equity Act, was introduced in 2018 by then-Council President Jack Young. Since introduction, it has garnered across-the-board support from Baltimoreans and city leaders with only one main obstacle: the leadership of the Department of Public Works (DPW). The legislation has had a public hearing and two work sessions while in committee.

The Obstacles to Baltimore Water Justice

DPW Director Rudy Chow presents last-minute amendments at council hearing on Water Accountability and Equity Act.

 

 

DPW has refused to consider the legislation every step of the way, evaded meetings with water justice advocates, and withheld important data. Meanwhile, water rates in Baltimore have continued to grow exponentially, and residents have continued to receive incorrect bills with pending resolutions.

The coalition has worked diligently to find common ground with DPW but has received minimal feedback and general neglect.

Eventually, DPW even drafted their own much weaker legislation that would help fewer Baltimoreans at a higher cost.

DPW’s “BH2O Assists” and “BH2O Assist Plus” programs (which sounds alarmingly like the “H2O Help to Others” program run by the largest investor-owned water company in the US) do not provide income-based bills and thus would leave water bills unaffordable for the nearly 30 percent of Baltimore households making less than $25,000 a year. They would also fail to reach and serve the vast majority of renters, who comprise 53 percent of Baltimore households. In fact, under their programs, renters are required to obtain express permission from the homeowner, adding another roadblock to affordable and accountable water for renters.

According to estimates from the City Council President’s Office, compared to BH2O Assists, the Water-for-All affordability program is projected to cost $19 million less over 5 years and serve an additional 3,000 people because it customizes bills to match what households need instead of providing a flat discount.

The Current Status of Baltimore Water Justice

Water advocates stand with Vice-President of the Baltimore City Council Sharon Green Middleton who is also chair of the Taxation, Finance and Development Committee.

At the second work session for the bill, four months after the initial committee hearing, DPW dropped 14 pages of late-in-the-game, last-minute amendments despite claiming they would have none up until the night before. DPW is trying to undermine legislation that would save them money, increase transparency, and create affordable rates for low-income families. 

However, the City Council is standing strong for Baltimoreans and moved the comprehensive Water Accountability and Equity Act through committee during this work session after months of delaying for DPW —> and every member of the committee voted favorably.

The bill is now one HUGE step closer to becoming a reality despite DPW’s best efforts. 

How to Improve Baltimore Water Justice

When passed, the bill will do two top-line and revolutionary things for Baltimore’s public water system:

  1. Establish a water affordability program to help all low-income families, including renters who make up a majority of the city and are currently denied assistance no matter their income;

  2. Create a new independent Customer Advocate’s Office to work with customers to address billing concerns.

Last month, DPW announced a new appeals process through the City’s Environmental Control Board, but the regulations fail to provide independent decision making as they give DPW Director Rudy Chow a final say over every stage of dispute resolution, and they omit critical timelines for reaching a resolution.

Director Chow has proven himself to be incompetent at addressing billing concerns, and now he’s opposing oversight.

The only true solution for Baltimore’s water crisis is the Water Accountability and Equity Act.

How A Grassroots Coalition Stopped A Corporate Water Grab In New Jersey

September 19, 2019
 Democracy Water

Suez and a Wall Street firm teamed up to win a huge contract in Edison. What stood in their way? The people of Edison.

When water giant Suez and Wall Street partner KKR made their move to win a $811 million, 40-year water and sewer privatization deal in New Jersey, they had enough money to buy ads on TV and Facebook, and deliver round after round of fear-mongering junk mail to residents’ mailboxes.

On our side, we had a kind of power that money can’t buy: Volunteers and interns going door-to-door, and fired up residents who demanded a voice in their town’s future. We had people power.

Edison NJ residents banded together to take control of their water systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suez never stood a chance. 

In a stunning win for public water, voters in Edison, New Jersey voted 84 percent to 16 percent in favor of bringing their sewer system and part of their drinking water system under public control. This makes the town—the fifth largest in New Jersey—the third municipality in the country to effectively ban water privatization, and the first to do so via citizen-initiated referendum.

How on Earth did a small, determined group of residents go to battle with a giant multinational corporation and a Wall Street investment firm… and win in a landslide?!

CHIP IN FOR WINS LIKE THIS!

Back in February, Edison Mayor Tom Lankey unveiled the proposal that was apparently in the works for months: The township would sign off on a 40-year, $811 million contract. Initial reports stressed that the upfront payment would help pay for new facilities, including a $40 million community center. But those are exactly the kinds of promises water privatizers like to make; residents are left to find out the hard way that’s not the way it works out. 

There was instant community opposition to the proposal. Residents packed public meetings demanding to know when the deal had been negotiated, why they weren’t informed about the process, and why in the world anyone would take these companies at their word. Just a few miles north, the city of Bayonne has been saddled with a nightmarish long-term contract with the same two companies. 

We knew there was a way to give the public a voice. Thanks to a state law, residents in some New Jersey towns can gather petitions that require their elected officials to consider a new ordinance; either the town council passes the ordinance outright, or it goes to the voters to decide in an election. Our initiative posed a simple question: Should Edison control its own water and sewer system?

We hit the streets to collect enough names to put the issue on the political agenda for the town. Within a month, our organizers, volunteers, interns and community members collected over 5,000 signatures. 

Then, Edison residents started hearing about a mysterious group that was going around calling themselves the Edison Utility Improvement Program. That official-sounding name was a ruse, though; we filed a public records request and discovered that this was a campaign paid for by Suez to sow confusion and mistrust in the community. 

It backfired spectacularly. Even Mayor Lankey, a champion of the Suez deal, came out and forcefully denounced the bogus campaign. 

Nonetheless, in July Edison’s Township Council decided, in a 4-3 vote, to not adopt the ordinance immediately. That put this question to the voters on a special election ballot. And that’s when the next phase began. 

Who’s Knocking?

The key to this election was turnout. We already knew that the more voters learned about the deal, the more they were likely to oppose it. We needed them to know that voting ‘yes’ for public control would preempt the privatization effort, and we had to do the hard work to get them to vote by mail or show up in person on election day — phone banks, text campaigns, and good ol’ fashioned knocking on doors. 

By the time election day rolled around, homemade VOTE YES signs were popping on lawns and intersections all over town. Suez made one last push, sending VOTE NO advertising trucks all over town, dozens of door-knockers, and even Suez employees. In the end, the companies spent a staggering $119,000 to swing votes their way– that adds up to about $73 per vote. By comparison, Food & Water Action spent about $2,000 encouraging Edison to vote “yes.”

Edison residents banded together to stop the Suez corporation from taking over their water and sewage.

The Big Picture

Edison is just the third municipality in the country to outright ban water privatization, bringing their water and sewer systems under public control. Until now, only Baltimore, Maryland and Northampton, Massachusetts have taken this step. 

But this win is bigger than that. Edison is the first community in the country with privatized water to go to the ballot to change the law to require public control. The community is re-municipalizing its water system by popular referendum. This is democracy in action. 

And better yet—voter turnout was remarkably high for a special election in September. Over 10,000 votes were cast, for a turnout of about 18 percent. As one state politics site pointed out, that was almost as many voters who turned out for a special election in 2013 for a U.S. Senate seat. It turns out that water can be a winner at the ballot box. 

Of course, we must think big when it comes to improving access to safe, clean and affordable public water. That’s why we’re pushing elected officials to support the WATER Act, which would provide the federal funding to help other communities bring their water into public hands, replace lead service lines, repair outdated infrastructure and create a truly 21st century water system across the country. 

Will you celebrate Edison’s win with us by telling your congressperson to co-sponsor the WATER Act?

TELL YOUR CONGRESSPERSON!