February 7, 2018

Grassroots organizing throws cold water on privatization threat in Pittsburgh

Corporate Accountability Organizer Alissa Weinman, alongside allies in the community, demands the Pittsburgh water system stay public.

Late last year, the takeover of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) by a corporation seemed imminent.

But the water privatization threat in Pittsburgh just hit a major roadblock: In late January, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued an executive order affirming the PWSA should remain a public asset. And it’s all thanks to the power of Pittsburgh residents, organizers from the Our Water Campaign, and people like you around the country who took action to protect public water.

In 2016, residents of Pittsburgh learned that their city was in the midst of a lead crisis following contracts with Veolia, one of the largest water privatizers in the world. Under Veolia’s management, the chemical used to prevent lead contamination was changed — to cut costs — without getting required approval from the state. Later that year, lead levels exceeded federal limits for the first time in PWSA history.

Pittsburgh illustrates what we’ve seen time and again when water privatizers come to town: corporate profits being put before what’s best for the community — with devastating impacts on our water systems, our health, and our well-being.

Unbelievably, despite Veolia’s mismanagement, Mayor Peduto seemed primed to pursue another private contract last year. He even brought in a consulting firm with a history of pushing water privatization to recommend a path forward for the water system. We knew we couldn’t let another private water corporation in the door of PWSA.

So the Our Water Campaign jumped into action on the ground in Pittsburgh. They organized events and canvassed to educate residents. They brought in community organizers from Flint, Michigan to share their experiences organizing for water justice in the wake of that city’s ongoing lead crisis. And around the holidays, the coalition held a Grinch-themed demonstration, demanding that public officials hold Veolia the Grinch accountable for the toll it has taken on the people of Pittsburgh.

As the pressure mounted locally, Corporate Accountability worked with national reporters to expose Veolia’s abuses. The ensuing coverage in outlets like Salon, Mother Jones, and more shined a spotlight on Veolia’s abuses and amplified pressure on the mayor to reject privatization. And we enlisted help from our national partners: When the city hired the consulting firm we worked with our allies at In the Public Interest to expose the firm’s pro-corporate bent and its ties to the water industry. At the same time, we brought in our allies at the Mayors Innovation Project to provide a meaningful counterweight to the consulting firm’s pro-private recommendations and outline public solutions for the restructuring of the PWSA.

It all added up to true, unstoppable people power: The mayor rejected the consulting firm’s recommendations and sided with the people of Pittsburgh, affirming that their water system remain public.

Although this is an important step toward securing justice in Pittsburgh, we know the journey is far from over. Moving forward, we will work closely with Our Water Campaign to ensure the PWSA restructuring is equitable, create strong public water accountability protections at the PWSA, and organize for a just rate affordability program. And we will continue to hold Veolia accountable for its abuses in Pittsburgh and around the globe.

Stand in solidarity with the people of Pittsburgh. Join the call for the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate Veolia.