Winnipeg council votes on unseen 30-year sewage-deal lock in

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Winnipeg and the Red River. Photo: 1ajs/flickr

Would you sign a 30-year mortgage for a house you haven't been allowed to see?

That's exactly what Winnipeg City Council is being asked to do today -- Wednesday, May 19 -- when it votes on whether to approve a 30-year private-public partnership (P3) with Paris-based water corporation, Veolia.

If approved, the city of Winnipeg will be locked into a long-term agreement with the corporation that will involve the design, build and management of Winnipeg's sewage treatment plant upgrades and expansion plans.

There are several red flags that City Council is overlooking.

First, the process so far doesn't bode well for those who are hoping for a transparent and democratic management of sewage treatment in Winnipeg.

The scheme is outlined by a very flimsy nine-page City administrative report, which contains no information about the details of the contract or numbers behind it. City councilors are expected to vote on Wednesday without having seen the actual contract that is to be signed with Veolia and without even knowing the total cost of the agreement.

Of course, this is the norm for contracts signed with private corporations. Given the confidentiality rules that protect corporate interests, the public is also unlikely to ever see the contract. Instead, Winnipeggers are expected to put their faith in the summary document which claims "all direct costs will be delivered on a transparent and open book basis and be subject to audit." Yet even city councillors haven't been allowed to see the contract they are scheduled to vote on.

Among other basic information, the summary report doesn't say how much the City of Winnipeg will pay Veolia for their expertise.

The summary claims "the 30-year contract is expected to save taxpayers from 10 to 20 per cent of the entire sewage treatment program costs," but doesn't say where those savings will come from (besides vague promises of "improved design," "innovation" and "bulk purchasing power") or offer any numbers to back this statement up.

The summary promises that Veolia will share with the city in the financial risks associated with the project, but doesn't say what Veolia will get in return for assuming this risk or how much it will cost Winnipeg.

The summary says "the contract will contain provisions for the City to terminate if ever required" but doesn't tell Winnipeggers how much it will cost to get out of the contract they've signed.

We must not forget that Veolia is the largest multinational water corporation in the world and knows a little something about how to secure a profitable deal for itself. The parent company, Veolia Environment reported revenues of over C$44 billion in 2009.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the company implemented cost-cutting measures enabling a rise in profits in 2009. Its deplorable environmental and social track record around the world show that Veolia makes its billions by cutting corners on quality of service, environmental protection and labour standards.

Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental and social justice organization has documented numerous human rights and environmental abuses including raw sewage discharge into the Mississippi River, substandard services in Indianapolis resulting in a boil water advisory to over a million people which forced school and businesses to shut down in 2002, labour abuses in New Orleans where non-union employees lost all health care and other benefits. As a result of highly publicized, wide-scale opposition in large U.S. communities, Food and Water Watch argues that Veolia has changed its strategy to target small and mid-sized communities in which opposition will be less pronounced.

It seems Veolia is off to a good start in Winnipeg, where the executive policy committee has rubberstamped the deal already.

It is now up to Winnipeggers to impress upon City Council that they cannot hand over the keys to an essential public service without being fully informed of the details of the arrangement. Winnipeggers must demand full public disclosure of the contract with Veolia before their elected officials are allowed to vote on the deal.

Scott Harris is Prairies Regional Organizer and Meera Karunananthan is National Water Campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

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