A German company is now the owner of large water companies in several Great Lakes states. The trend has many communities concerned about the future of their water supplies, and how foreign ownership may affect water quality, and some advocates want towns to take control of their local water supply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
A foreign company is now the owner of large water companies in several Great Lakes
states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania). A German company recently bought
American Water Works. The move has many communities concerned about the future of
their water supplies, and how foreign ownership may affect water quality. And some
advocates want towns to take control of their local water supply. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
(ambient sound underneath)
Randy West is standing in a small shack behind the main offices of Illinois American
Water Company’s operations in Pekin, Illinois. A huge tank and a series of pipes snaked
around in every direction fill up the cramped room.
“This is one of our wells here, and it is running right now, of course, putting water out
into the system.”
The Illinois town is one of dozens in the Great Lakes region that now has an international
owner of their water system. West says that doesn’t mean much to him. He says it’s all
the same equipment that was in place before RWE took over. He says it’s all run by the
same people. West says nothing has changed since the German company took ownership
“The day that we closed was just another day. and every day since then has been just
another day. We’re doing everything just like we were. There has been no change
whatsoever in how we operate it and how we manage it, how we run the system or
West says he’s totally comfortable working for a water company owned by foreign
interests. But a national group is trying to rally support against RWE. Public Citizen, the
public advocacy group run by Ralph Nader, says all cities that are currently served by
American Water Works should look into forcing a buyout of RWE’s holdings and create
a municipally-owned water works. Hugh Jackson is a policy analyst for Public Citizen.
He says local ownership is better because water is a local resource. He also says having
an international owner of a water company can create problems when a community wants
to make sure their water source is safe:
“Let’s say for instance you want to impose a conservation plan. Can an international
company come in and claim because of international trade agreements that local
authorities have no jurisdiction over that company?”
Jackson says RWE does not have a positive record with water companies. He says one of
its subsidiaries, Thames Water of England, has had numerous water quality violations
and has done only the bare minimum to meet standards or has avoided them by paying
fines. Some communities are investigating municipal ownership. Terry Kohlbuss is
helping head an effort in Peoria, Illinois to buy out the water works. But Kohlbuss says
Peoria’s motivation is not about RWE. He says the focus should be on what’s best for the
people, and not vilifying a private company.
“I don’t think there is anything inherently bad or evil about American Water Works,
Illinois American, or RWE. But what happens is that you have the system operated for a
different purpose when it’s an investor-owned utility and even when it’s an international
owner. You are meeting their needs. You exist to meet their needs, not they to meet
Kohlbuss says local ownership would provide communities better protection of their
water sources. While safer water may be a reason for local ownership of the water
company, there may be a more pressing reason for cities to look at a buyout. Municipal
budgets are getting tighter and tighter, and every city is looking for a new revenue source.
Many public officials believe they can run their water company more efficiently, provide
better rates, and keep some of the profits at home in city coffers.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.