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Veolia would be bad news for St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2013 - One of the issues that has been raised in the mayoral elections is a proposal for the city to have a French multinational named Veolia assess the city’s water department and recommend ways it could improve. Concerned citizens are bird-dogging candidates at every turn regarding a contract nobody had even heard of three months ago. So what’s all the fuss about?

Veolia is the largest private operator of water services in the world. As outlined in a Riverfront Times article, it has been itching for a contract with our city for years and has had the support of the Slay administration. At one time Veolia proposed a “parallel command structure” to aid in cost cutting, but that failed. It now is seeking a contract to review the division and suggest what we should do with our water.

Nobody is claiming that the latest proposal is for privatization. But time and time again, similar consultancy contracts -- which appear to be Veolia’s new modus operandi nationwide when direct privatization efforts are rebuffed -- have served as a back-door avenue for outsourcing municipal operations. Common sense and a search into this corporation’s history show that there is nothing innocent about Veolia or this contract. Privatization and outsourcing concerns aside, Veolia’s disastrous record from environmental, labor, and human rights standpoints is sufficient to reject the company outright.

In Kentucky, Veolia’s environmental violations led to a diesel spill that entered locals’ drinking water. In Richmond, Calif., Veolia was hired to develop cost-cutting improvement measures and later sued for dumping 17 million gallons of sewage into nearby tributaries. Its contract was cancelled amid concerns about odor and capital investments. The town of Lynn, Mass., was blanketed in stench after Veolia cut costs by refusing to properly treat wastewater. Across the river in Sauget, Veolia operated a hazardous waste incinerator for more than 10 years without a clean air permit. The facility has been fined millions for releasing toxic chemicals, including carcinogenic dioxins, into the air. The list goes on.

Water division workers have been alarmed since Veolia began courting the city, given its notorious record with labor. Veolia called the water division’s staff levels high, hinting at layoffs. While Veolia now insists that job cuts are off the table, it has a history of breaking promises, as in Indianapolis, where workers struggled against cuts to health care and pensions.

In the occupied West Bank, Veolia is involved in servicing illegal Israeli settlements by operating a landfill, wastewater treatment plant, tramway, and buses on settlers-only roads, all on land stolen from Palestinian families who were violently and cruelly driven out. The Palestinian population is not allowed to use these roads or many of Veolia services because of their ethnicity and religion.

Our city struggles to overcome segregation and discrimination. Why would we hire a corporation profiting from segregation and discrimination elsewhere? St. Louis is not responsible for ending injustices in Israel/Palestine. But we are responsible for the choices we make about who we work with. 

Veolia’s notorious practices have lost the company billions of dollars in contracts worldwide. Even its hometown of Paris gave it the boot. In Indianapolis, which Veolia touted as a success story in its proposal to St. Louis, the company is entangled in two class-action lawsuits regarding overbilling. Following widespread controversy surrounding failure to fulfill promises, mismanagement, and sacrificing water quality for profit, the city eventually had to buy Veolia out of its contract at the hefty price of $29 million. 

The water system may need help. It does not need Veolia’s help. The system faces huge challenges. Firms here in Missouri can meet our needs. Veolia’s record indicates that its cost-cutting methods are unacceptable: reducing quality, raising rates, dodging environmental standards, and layoffs. We don’t need to pay $250,000 for that advice.

Last month, 50 environmentalists; workers; human rights activists; civil rights leaders; veterans; local business owners; students; members of St. Louis’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities; and others packed a meeting of the Board of Estimate & Apportionment, which considers contracts. Many lined the halls to Slay’s office to show opposition to Veolia. There was no public support for Veolia.

We are seeing a rare manifestation of people confronting power, the 99 percent vs. corporate misdeeds. It’s beautiful. The question is, on which side will our elected officials stand?

We may soon find out. Residents will return to City Hall for the next meeting Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 2 p.m. to say to our officials: Let’s keep our city, water, and conscience clean. Let’s dump Veolia. 

Anna Baltzer is active with the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, and the St. Louis Dump Veolia Coalition.