CUPE-funded water report gets an F for objectivity

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
January 30, 2001

Because the private sector has proven to be so successful in improving water quality while lowering costs to taxpayers, water utility privatizations have been sweeping the world. Europe, Asia, South America and North America are all increasingly turning to private operators to remedy decades of government neglect and compromised regulation.

In Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees has been complicit in the decline of our country’s water systems. While our public systems crumbled, CUPE policies promoted bloated workforces that absorbed the money our governments needed to refurbish and safeguard our water works. Only when CUPE recognized that water utility privatizations could sweep Canada and invade its own turf — in 1997 — did CUPE spring into action with expressions of concern over the health of our water supplies.

CUPE formed Water Watch with other organizations, including Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians, and in 1999 and 2000, CUPE published an annual report on privatization, warning of its danger to public health. Many in the press and the public dismissed these efforts, in good part because of CUPE’s often hysterical tone and its penchant for half-truths. CUPE condemned the U.K.’s water privatization, for example, citing an increase in dysentery and Hepatitis A that occurred after the privatization. CUPE didn’t mention that dysentery and Hepatitis A levels fluctuate, that research does not attribute the fluctuations to privatization, and that, in any event, dysentery and Hepatitis A levels soon dropped below the levels that existed under public ownership.

Unimpressed by CUPE arguments, municipal governments also dismissed them — Halifax and Vancouver, among others, decided to pursue water and sewage privatizations. CUPE needed help to bolster its credibility, and it found that help in the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, a law firm that represents CUPE’s Water Watch ally, Council of Canadians, at the Walkerton Inquiry. Earlier this month, CUPE and Sierra Legal unveiled a smart-looking study that came out of their collaboration — Waterproof: Canada’s Drinking Water Report Card.

Sierra Legal managed the Waterproof project well. It stripped away CUPE’s hyperbole and couched the union message in measured language. Unlike CUPE’s previous two reports, Waterproof got great press. But at its core, Waterproof remains a political document that conforms to CUPE’s agenda: It attacks privatization, corporate farming, provincial downloading, and the decision by governments to cut taxes rather than spend on social needs.

Presented as an objective, national report card on water quality standards, this CUPE-funded document compares Canadian jurisdictions to those of the United States and the European Economic Community and finds ours wanting against both. Most provinces get a C or worse and none receive the A that Waterproof gives the United States, in its view “a world leader in establishing strong and comprehensive [water quality] requirements.”

Yet despite its focus on privatization, Waterproof makes no mention — not even in footnotes — of the fact that private water utilities are common throughout the United States and EEC countries. It does not explain that private sector operators tend to be better trained and more knowledgeable, or that privately owned companies and their shareholders stand to suffer financially by losing contracts when they don’t provide their customers with good service and good water. Private operators, in short, have been gaining market share because they are more accountable.

Instead, turning principles of accountability on their head, Waterproof asserts that “Mounting pressure may force some municipalities to turn to the private sector to own and operate water systems, further muddying the waters of accountability.” The report doesn’t mention that the Hamilton utility flagrantly violated sewage standards for years while the system remained under public ownership, its union staff turning a blind eye to infractions. Only after a private corporation took over its operation has the union become critical and the law begun to be strictly enforced — the private operators have recently been slapped with 14 charges. CUPE offers not a shred of evidence to support its claim that private operators are less accountable to government regulators than are government bodies.

The report repeatedly lambastes governments’ failure to invest in needed infrastructure, linking this failure to their preoccupation with tax cuts. Fair enough. Canada’s publicly owned water system is in gross disrepair and Canadians must pay to restore its health. But although the U.K. water system also suffered from deplorable disrepair under public ownership, and the British also had to pay, CUPE has relentlessly criticized the U.K. water utility privatizations of 1989 for raising rates. CUPE gives the U.K. no credit for its improvements following privatization — water quality has improved dramatically, for example — but it generously gives the Ontario government a B for its post-Walkerton reforms, although, as it notes, these reforms won’t all come into place before 2002. No need to privatize, the report card on our drinking water systems seems to be telling us. “Ontario made strides towards addressing these issues” after Walkerton, Waterproof states several times, in several ways, implying that Ontario’s B rating can be easily brought up to an A with the passage of one or two pieces of legislation.

Waterproof tries mightily to blame the factory farm for environmental problems, and in this it is fully justified. Factory farms pose numerous environmental problems. To its discredit, however, the report tries too hard, leaving readers with the impression that factory farming may have caused the Walkerton tragedy. “First, there is some evidence that the source of the E. coli contamination in Walkerton may have been a farming operation. Second, modern-day farming operations are often industrial in scale, producing massive volumes of potentially contaminated animal waste.”

Some evidence? May have been a farming operation? The E. coli contamination came from a family farm — that is the clear finding of an elaborate Health Canada investigation presented to the Walkerton Inquiry. The Walkerton area has no factory farming operations involving cattle. In most of Canada, in fact, only the family farm poses a Walkerton- like threat — most provinces have few large cattle operations and E. coli 0157:H7, the only deadly form of E. coli, is not present in pigs.

Waterproof gets an A for slick packaging. It gets an F for objective analysis of the causes of, and cures for, Canada’s drinking water supplies.

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