Environment

Coming Soon to Your Water Supply: England's Worst Polluter

A multinational energy conglomerate that prefers paying fines to obeying environmental laws is snatching up public water utilities around the country, and public officials are only too happy to oblige.
Thames Water, the water giant that is involved in taking over water and sewer systems in communities across the United States, including Stockton, Calif., has topped lists of the worst polluters in England for two of the three past years, and is likely to rank among England’s worst polluters yet again in 2002.

The Stockton City Council decided this fall to begin negotiating with OMI-Thames, a partnership of two companies that operate globally and together are vying to manage the city's drinking water, wastewater and storm water systems. The contract would span 20 years and cost $400-500 million. A public plea against the privatization assessment, to the tune of 18,000 signatures requesting a public vote, went largely ignored as the council forged ahead.

A Public Citizen profile of Thames’ recent environmental performance found that dating back to 1999, Thames has been convicted of environmental and public health violations 24 times and fined approximately $700,000. In case after case, regulators found that the company was aware of conditions that led to raw sewage discharges and could have prevented the pollution. It appears, however, that Thames' corporate strategy is based on the notion that paying the fines is less expensive than paying to maintain and operate water and sewer systems cleanly and safely.

Currently in negotiations to be purchased by RWE AG, the German energy conglomerate, Thames' business model is being imported to the U.S. as part of an increasing concentration and consolidation of transnational corporations pushing to privatize the world's water. RWE is acquiring American Water Works, the largest publicly held U.S.-based water utility with operations in 29 states, and RWE plans to put its new U.S. operations under Thames’ supervision.

Citizens in Stockton, Lexington, Ky. and other communities from coast to coast are alarmed at the prospect of their water supplies coming under control of a gigantic global corporation with a dismal environmental record.

Water is a precious resource and access to clean water is a basic human right. We can’t afford to allow a company such as Thames to have unfettered access to it. The only solution is for citizens to organize and stop this reckless polluter from snapping up their water systems.

There are plenty of good reasons for people to be concerned and fight OMI-Thames. In 1999, Thames was successfully prosecuted by the British government for pollution eight times. No company was prosecuted more often. In 2000, Thames was fined nearly $450,000 for pollution -- more than any other company in England and Wales. In case after case, officials found that Thames was aware of conditions that led to the pollution and could have prevented them, and the company was repeatedly criticized for ignoring warnings, failing to respond appropriately and unnecessarily endangering public health and the environment.

In Dartford, England in 1998, Thames was fined roughly $70,000 for failing to promptly and competently stop sewage that was discharging into the River Cray. Officials later characterized the violation as "unique" in that the company admitted to "knowingly permitting the discharge to the Cray."

In 2000, a pumping station failure in southeast London resulted in raw sewage and toxic industrial waste overflowing into a street and flooding nearby homes. Residents suffered headaches, nausea and vomiting, and many were treated in hospitals. Ten houses were rendered uninhabitable. An estimated 22.5 million liters of raw sewage and waste was pumped into the River Thames. Thames was fined a total of $400,000, the largest fine ever for that particular waste management law violation, and the court harshly criticized the company for its "complete disregard for human health and the environment."

In 2001, a blocked sewer in Hampshire caused sewage to flow into the River Wey and lakes in the area. While Thames’ contractors arrived on the scene quickly, their shift ended before they fixed the problem, and did not clear the source of the discharge until the following day. Hundreds of fish died as a result, and Thames was fined more than $30,000. Magistrates were stunned at Thames’ "exceptional levels of incompetence."

As Thames swoops into communities in the United States, citizens, civic leaders and elected officials at all levels should work together to stop Thames from gaining control of water systems and jeopardizing the public health and environment. If we don't take charge now, we could very soon be facing a water crisis like California's Enron-induced energy crisis, but literally with life-or-death consequences.

Jane Kelly is director of the Oakland office of Public Citizen. You can download the entire report in PDF format from the Public Citizen Web site. 
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