Fort Mill Times

We’re all losing the water war

Water wars, once only a scenario in the Western U.S., are becoming a reality all across America.

Thirty years ago, the thought of paying more for a bottle of water than a cup of coffee was absurd, but now it’s common place. Every day we turn on the news and what do we see? Towns bombarded with chemical spills and waterways polluted by drilling or accidentsBut that is just the big news.

The everyday news is much worse.

Towns across America are fighting the harsh reality of privatization of their water sewer companies. What was once a government controlled monopoly becomes a much more dangerous free market controlled monopoly.

What does this mean to the consumer? In the beginning, not much. The new utility company comes in promising change. They buy the cities crippled but working system promising repairs. It will need a rate increase of 7 percent. Mostly only reactive maintenance repairs are made, even though over the years many rate increases may be requested, no preventative maintenance to the system occurs. The companies make big profits off the backs of everyday people who may be drinking contaminated water they can’t even afford to drink from their own tap.

The government aid for private utilities companies does not cover most of the bill according to Kim Vinsett of Fort Mill-based Son Ministries, “In my efforts to advocate for low income individuals in financial crisis I have experienced incredible obstacles with the well-meaning agencies and programs. One I have had success in obtaining funds from is Carolina Community Action for utility relief only covers the line item – basic electric, leaving the remaining charges to the already in-crisis resident. Most I’ve come across have ‘quit’ out of exasperation. It is a broken system even when it is working.”

Locally, Tega Cay has been experiencing problems with sewage spills since 1980. TCWS, until recently owned by Utilities Inc., purchased the system in 1991 asking for multiple increases to consumer bills, which they have for the most part been successful in obtaining. Some repairs have been made to the system, but not enough to stop the spills into the lake. An EPA enforcement notice said Utilities Inc. “has a reactive maintenance approach rather than a firm preventive maintenance program’’ for its sewer system at Tega Cay. The order said Utilities Inc.’s Tega Cay Water Service had violated the federal Clean Water act.

The utility was recently taken over by the city of Tega Cay.

To dissuade residents from suing on a massive scale, privately owned water sewer companies maintain smaller companies. Each company is owned and operated at the city or even smaller level and that company has a parent company or two like Utilities Inc. or Aqua America Inc. The private utility company can claim; you are a small group of only 100 consumers or 1,000 consumers instead of 10,000 or a million.

Meanwhile, during the years since TCWS had taken control of the water sewer system, millions of gallons of sewage spilled into the lake, which feeds into Catawba River, which is now on the endangered list. This is a corporate tactic: bleed the city dry while getting small fines of noncompliance from the EPA until the city is forced to take drastic measures and purchase the system back from the private, locally-owned utilities company that are too small to sue. Tega Cay purchased the system for $6 million from TCWS. Sarasota County, Fla., is considering a similar buyout of its water sewer systems owned by Aqua Utilities, known locally as Dolomite Utilities.

See the pattern?

Aqua America Inc., United Water Co. and Corix are just a few examples of privatized utilities. These corporations are taking advantage of laws we are not being mindful of. This is the story you should be concerned about. This is America’s “Water War.” A corporate loophole is polluting our country on a massive scale one city at a time. Please contact your congressmen, your attorney general, DHEC, EPA, your senators and let them know your concerns.

Use your voice before it’s too late.

Mary Rassmussen is a resident of Fort Mill.