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Shocking Conflict of Interest: Private Water Companies Partner With Fracking Lobby

Selling water to drillers, two of the nation's biggest private water utilities may soon profit from treating the wastewater.

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"By the nature of our business, we will continue to be stewards of the environment, ensuring water source protection," says Maenza.

The company isn't currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, according to Maenza, though during a quarterly earnings call last year, American Water CEO Jeff Sterba told investors, "We are very definitely looking and working in the wastewater treatment area." Maenza declined to comment on any specific initiatives. Aqua America executive Karl Kyriss says his company's involvement in the coalition helps protect water resources.

"By participating, we can have some direct input into the group that is looking to support development of the Marcellus Shale," says Kyriss. "But we are very much committed that it be done in an environmentally sensitive and protected manner. And we think we can do that better from the inside than just sort of watching what happens."

Aqua America is aggressively positioning itself to take advantage of what CEO Nick DeBenedictis has described to investors as a "water-energy nexus that could have a positive impact on the future of our company." In recent years, the company has made sizeable acquisitions in Texas and Ohio -- states that, like Pennsylvania, are home to large shale gas plays -- and is also building a pipeline in Pennsylvania to supply water to drillers.

DeBenedictis believes the pipeline will ease the wear and tear on roads and the environment currently caused by trucks carrying water to wells. Recently, however, that pipeline has come under fire from local anti-drilling activists because the project will displace dozens of residents from a mobile home park.

Like American Water, Aqua America is not currently in the drilling wastewater treatment business, but may expand into that market in the future.

Some environmental advocates see potential conflicts between the interests of the private water industry and the interests of drinking water consumers.

"If American Water and Aqua America wanted to ensure that their water supplies were protected, they would support a national ban on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas," argues Mary Grant, a researcher at Food and Water Watch, which has reported on Aqua America's ties to the coalition. "But, instead of acting on the precautionary principle, they are paying thousands of dollars a year to an industry coalition that advocates for shale gas development, despite the risks to water quality."

"We are concerned that these relationships encourage investor owned water utilities to endorse shale gas development despite its risk to public water supplies," Grant says. Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, adds, "Sometimes the interests of private ownership are inconsistent with the concept of preserving our water resources in the public trust for future generations. And the potential clashing of those interests is why these questions have been raised about whether for-profit companies ought to be running public water supplies."  

Sarah Pavlus is a reporter for The American Independent .