The City of St. Louis has the finest-tasting tap water in the country, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In water-quality studies among large cities, St. Louis has long been in the top 10 cities, while Indianapolis ranked 90th. Why should St. Louis care about Indianapolis’ water quality?
Because the same company that Indianapolis hired to operate its water system, Veolia Water, was recently selected to be the city’s consulting company to “improve” St. Louis water and the Water Division’s business functions. Indianapolis paid Veolia $29 million to end its contract 10 years early, and citizens filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for overcharges on their water bills.
More than 50 people from environmental and social-justice groups protested a contract with Veolia at the Jan. 16 Board of Estimate and Apportionment meeting, where the mayor, Board of Alderman president and comptroller were prepared to vote on the contract.
Protesters said Veolia Water, a French firm and the largest private water services provider in the world, has left a smudge on other cities and also operates under questionable environmental standards.
Anticipating the protests, the Board of E&A removed the contract from the Jan. 16 agenda and did not discuss it. The contract aims to “improve business practices,” according to the city’s request for proposals.
Protesters first came out in numbers at the Dec. 17 board meeting, where the contract was placed on the agenda just one day prior to the meeting. There, aldermanic President Lewis Reed questioned Veolia’s track record, and Comptroller Darlene Green followed Reed by requesting an investigation into the citizens’ allegations.
Reed said he’s been working closely with the citizens to represent their concerns at the Board of E&A and will continue to do so.
However, Mayor Francis G. Slay stood firmly behind the company, citing that the city had a good relationship working with a subsidiary company of Veolia Energy North America, Trigen-St. Louis Energy Company, which operates an underground steam loop that provides heat to downtown residents.
Veolia Water’s controversy is not new to St. Louis. In September 2010, Veolia toured the city’s Water Division facilities – only three months after Rex Sinquefield’s Show-Me Institute released a May 2010 report urging the city to privatize its water utility.
Sinquefield is a huge contributor to Slay’s mayoral campaign. However, at the time the mayor said it was nothing more than a visit. Slay said he has no plans to push for selling the city’s water services to a private company.
The Riverfront Times reported the news about the Veolia consulting contract in November, after talking with employees who feared the loss of their jobs. Though the contract is just to consult for the city, opponents – including the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee – said it was just a step towards an end goal of selling the city’s water services to Veolia.
“The extensive information about this company’s record across the country and around the world makes it clear that St. Louis should not be doing business with it,” Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said in a letter to board members.
Veolia has come up against several lawsuits, almost all ending in settlements where the company claims no wrongdoing.
In November 2012, Veolia Environmental Services and its subsidiaries agreed to pay $15 million in a class-action lawsuit for overcharging its customers in multiple states over a period of nearly 10 years.
The nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper sued Veolia twice, in two different California cities, for allegedly releasing millions of gallons of partially-treated wastewater into San Francisco Bay.
In 2004, the city of Angleton, Texas, terminated its wastewater treatment and street cleaning contract with Veolia, claiming that the company failed to provide sufficient staff and overcharged the city for maintenance and administrative work.
“St. Louis tax dollars and water payments should not go toward supporting environmental destruction, unfair labor practices, corruption and human rights abuses,” the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee said in a statement.