Abusing the public’s trust

Elizabeth Brubaker
National Post
January 24, 2003

Former Nader analyst now admits that water ‘privatization has great potential’

Public Citizen, Ralph Nader’s signature organization, and the director of its environment program, Wenonah Hauter, assert that privatization “is not, and never will be, the solution” to Canada’s water woes (Water is a Right, letter, Jan. 20). For another point of view on the merits of water privatization, I refer readers to Ms. Hauter’s erstwhile colleague, Alex Tsybine.

Mr. Tsybine, until recently a policy analyst at Public Citizen and the author of several of the organization’s anti-privatization reports, once made his living warning municipalities off “the treacherous path of water and wastewater privatization.” He now characterizes those warnings as shallow, saying that “no special expertise is required to recognize that the arguments put forth by unions and consumer groups present only one side of the story.”

Mr. Tsybine comes clean in the current issue of Public Works Financing. He admits that he repeated the refrain that “water privatization leads to higher rates, undermines water quality, and transfers control of a precious public resource to profit-driven multinational corporations, whose records are replete with corruption, poor service and environmental violations,” so often that it deserved to be added to his job description. And he admits that the reports and fact sheets produced by privatization opponents “fall short of offering a comprehensive analysis that local decision makers desperately need.

“The critics have oversimplified and confused the privatization debate,” he confesses, adding that “some of the criticism is clearly misplaced.”

Now that he has returned to school to obtain a law degree and is no longer on the Public Citizen payroll, Mr. Tsybine feels free to provide an unbiased assessment of privatization. On the subject of water rates: “Private operators can and do deliver lower rates.” On the subject of service quality: “Contrary to the critics’ contentions, private operators have a respectable record of providing quality water and complying with environmental standards. Many communities choose to outsource because of daunting compliance problems. Private operators employ their expertise to solve the problems and improve water quality.” While Mr. Tsybine remains skeptical of long-term contracts and asset sales, and insists that privatization will not be a panacea for each community, he acknowledges that “privatization has great potential.”

What explains the disconnect between Mr. Tsybine’s current and previous assessments? “In an ideal world,” he writes, “positions would be based on an objective assessment, not on ideology. But this world is far from ideal.”

The gulf between objective assessment and ideology looms large in Ms. Hauter’s charges against water privatization in the United Kingdom. Reams of facts contradict her assertions that the U.K.’s private providers have “allowed water quality to deteriorate, failed to make promised investments and seized control while sidestepping accountability.”

In fact, in the decade following privatization in England and Wales, the new firms invested £33 billion — the equivalent of $81-billion — in their water and wastewater systems. These enormous investments paid off in better water quality, both at the tap and at the end of the discharge pipe. In its most recent annual report, the Drinking Water Inspectorate praises the water companies for continuing improvements in compliance with standards for coliforms, iron, trihalomethanes and lead. The Environment Agency likewise celebrates improvements in waste water treatment, saying that rivers and estuaries are probably cleaner than they have been since before the industrial revolution. The seashore is also significantly cleaner: Last year, 99% of the beaches in England and Wales met European standards — up from just 76% at the time of privatization. As for accountability, England and Wales now enjoy far stricter regulation — environmental, health, and economic — than they did in the years before privatization.

Public Citizen’s misrepresentation of water issues goes beyond England and Wales. In a paper entitled Top 10 Reasons to Oppose Water Privatization, its explanation of the Walkerton tragedy compounds misunderstandings: “the contamination problem was revealed in a federal government study several years earlier, but the study was lost in the privatization frenzy.” In fact, there was no such federal government study, and neither was there a privatization frenzy in the water field.

The once-great consumer advocacy organization that Mr. Nader founded in 1971 seems to have lost its way in an ideological fog. The organization prides itself on representing the public interest. But how can presenting inaccurate information be in the public interest? The organization boasts that it is “a potent countervailing force to the might of Corporate America.” But hasn’t it stooped to using the sales tactics of those it criticizes? The organization insists that it has been uncompromising in its fight for government and corporate accountability. But what about its own accountability? Who is held accountable for the misinformation that it disseminates?

Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook has written, “I am awed by the power of citizens to shape government policy by being active participants in democracy.” Power brings responsibility. In its determination to criticize privatization at any cost — even at the cost of the truth – Public Citizen has abused that responsibility.

Elizabeth Brubaker is executive director of Toronto-based Environment Probe and author of Liquid Assets, recently published by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Public Management.


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