Update: Daily RFT has just received new information about the vote on the contract, which was set to take place tomorrow afternoon.
A rising tide of dissent is building against a contract between the City of St. Louis and multinational water service company Veolia.
Daily RFT broke news of the deal in December after insiders at the city water division leaked memos showing that Veolia, a Paris-based company, won a contract in a competitive bidding process. Originally, the deal was set to be approved at the December 19 Estimates and Apportionment committee meeting.
However, the contract was tabled after a group of protesters from the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee asked E&A committee members Mayor Francis Slay, aldermanic president Lewis Reed, and comptroller Darlene Green to look closer at Veolia's reputation, citing environmental and social-justice concerns. While it was a minor victory for the group at the time, a month later the contract is again up for a vote at tomorrow's E&A meeting.
Since then, STL-PSC has grown to form a new coalition called "Dump Veolia." Using social media, it hopes to stop or at least stall the contract once again.
See also: -French Firm, Veolia, Wins Consulting Contract with St. Louis Water Division -Watchdog Group Has Its Eye On Veolia, City's New Water Division Consultant -Veolia Water Contract Sent Back to Committee Over Concerns About Company's Reputation The contract is a $250,000 consulting deal with Veolia to evaluate possible cost-cutting measures at the water utility over the next four months. The deal says Veolia will make recommendations that are either accepted or rejected by the city. If they're accepted, Veolia will oversee implementation of the measures over the next five years. The company will get a cut of the savings it is able to produce for the city, which it has pegged at about $8 to $15 million. Read Veolia's entire bid here.
Dump Veolia includes members of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee who object to Veolia's services to Israeli settlements on disputed Palestinian territory (read more about that here). The group recently posted a letter to its website from the "Palestinian Freedom Riders," a group of activists in the West Bank who were arrested trying to take a bus to Jerusalem. Veolia is said to operate several bus lines to the settlements. Here's an excerpt from that letter:
We were extremely heartened to hear of the Board's decision to shelve the Veolia contract pending further investigation last month. Cursory investigation will show that Veolia is involved not only in running segregated buses through the Occupied Palestinian Territory, but that it also has been involved in building a light rail through occupied East Jerusalem, in violation of international law, and that it is involved in collecting refuse from illegal settlements at the Tovlan landfill site in the occupied Jordan Valley, using captured Palestinian land and natural resources for the needs of Israeli settlements.
Dump Veolia also represents environmental concerns. Kat Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says she's extremely concerned about the role Veolia may play in city drinking water and has put out a call through the MCE Facebook page to get people to city hall on Wednesday afternoon.
Update 1 p.m.: Mayor Slay's spokesperson Heather Dunsford just informed us that the Veolia contract has been bumped off of Wednesday's Estimates and Apportionment Committee agenda. It seems Comptroller Green wants more time to look into the matter.
"I think everybody who drinks water should get involved," says Smith. "This is bigger than some silly little efficiency contract that they're trying to blow it off as. They're trying to dismiss people's interest in this and it's a little more serious than that."
We broke down some of the environmental concerns about Veolia here, in particular past cases of illegal waste water dumping in New Orleans and California. Smith says she's worried about a foreign company being entrusted with cutting costs in St. Louis at a time when drought makes water such a precious commodity. As an example, she points to an operating contract Veolia held with the city of Indianapolis that was terminated under charges of mismanagement.
"The way you save money is you cut staff, you cut programs, you cut corners or you increase revenue. That's the way it has to go down. Why should those recommendations be coming from this company? I think the community needs to make these decisions," she says. "I don't see how you can make things cheaper by inserting a profit-maker in the middle."
To be clear, Veolia would not be operating the water utility, it would be hired only in the consulting role. Mayor Slay's office has repeated several times that the consulting contract with Veolia would not result in any layoffs, nor would it signal a move toward privatization of the utility.
At the last E&A meeting, a decision on the contract was stalled after both President Reed and Comptroller Green expressed reticence to vote without doing an "investigation" on the company. Green suggested the contract go back to the search committee.
A spokesperson for Mayor Slay's office says that Green was provided new information by Veolia in response to some of her questions, but the contract itself has not changed. It also seems that the original search committee never reconvened.
This concerns STL-PSC member Anna Baltzer, who attended that first E&A meeting and plans to be at Wednesday's as well.
"We thought there was going to be an investigation. We were hoping those findings would be public," she says. "We're hoping people will come to the meeting and have their voices heard."
E&A meetings customarily do not include time for public comment.
Meanwhile, Dump Veolia's Facebook page is up to 134 likes, and Baltzer says she hoping for a big turnout on Wednesday. Stay tuned; we'll be following this story all week.