New Brunswick City Council breaks contract with American Water

The New Brunswick City Council announced Wednesday night that the contract with American Water Operations and Maintenance Incorporated, who provided distribution and treatment professionals necessary for plant operation, would not be renewed.

This decision is a positive step for city residents, said Rita Yelda, a senior organizer at Food & Water Watch (F&WW), a non-governmental organization dedicated to ensuring food safety by holding government accountable.

“I think the city council made the right choice today in allowing the contract to expire,” she said. “The contract between American Water and New Brunswick really has been a failure, and today the council and the administration stood up for the people of New Brunswick.”

There were several days last winter when the city’s water supply did not meet New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) standards for proper contact time with chlorine, a disinfectant.

One of these days was in January 2015, and the remaining 10 were in the previous December, Yelda said.

Residents of New Brunswick were not made aware of the poor water quality until this past April, she said. There was no "boil water" advisory or other warnings on those days.

A press release by F&WW said federal law requires the public to be notified of violations like these within 30 days of their occurrence.

“The violations were for low contact time,” she said. “There could have been microbes in the water that made people sick, nauseous, (have) headaches (and) things like that.”

According to a notice sent to all New Brunswick residents, the chlorine contact time was adequate enough to inactivate viruses, but not enough to inactivate Giardia Lamblia, a parasite that can cause diarrheal illness.

The city self-reported the water quality issues to the NJDEP after detecting the problem in early January 2015, which they determined to be a non-emergency. Thus, residents were not notified within 24 hours of the issue, according to the notice.

American Water is known for raising costs on their residents without warning.

The company bought the water utility in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 2001 while promising not to raise prices, Yelda said. During their time there, the company tripled the prices for residents.

“To them, it’s about their bottom line,” she said. “It’s about their money, it’s not about providing quality water to the city.”

Likewise, water costs rose in New Brunswick in the last few years. Some of that can be attributable to the work being done by the city on the water utility.

Some of the other price rises could have been due to the company’s contract as well, she said.

The New Brunswick City Council announced in December that water prices would rise over the next three years due to infrastructure upgrades, she said.

“Hopefully all of that money is going to upgrades and none of it is going to American Water,” she said.

The water was likely privatized so the city could focus on other issues, such as improving the infrastructure within the city, said Megan Kenny, School of Arts and Sciences sophomore and president of Take Back the Tap, a campaign by F&WW promoting sustainability at the University.

This was only a “quick fix” and did not actually improve service, she said. A municipality could easily provide equivalent service without raising prices as much.

“(With) the contract American had with New Brunswick, it wasn’t full ownership of the water system but it does give this large corporate entity a foot in the door in terms of being able to step up the privatization process in New Brunswick,” Kenny said.

“The water shouldn’t be owned by private companies, it should be accessible and affordable for everyone in the community,” Kenny said. “We want tap water to be safe and accessible for everyone.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said control of the municipality's water plant would return to New Brunswick. It also said the city's "moldy" flavor may have originated from an algal bloom in the Raritan River. Water for New Brunswick is taken from Farrington Lake and the D&R Canal before the treatment process begins. The article has been altered to reflect information given by the City of New Brunswick in a notice sent to New Brunswick residents.

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