Environmentalist makes case for privatization of water treatment

Duncan Thorne
The Edmonton Journal
October 19, 2007

A leading water environmentalist is urging Alberta to privatize publicly run water utilities, ending a "cozy relationship" between the government and municipal utility operators.

Elizabeth Brubaker, executive-director of Toronto’s Environment Probe policy group, says privatization will improve accountability and is the best way to boost water quality while reducing costs.

The Journal exposed the lack of accountability after it asked the government in early 2006 to let it see assessments on 534 water-treatment plants across the province, Brubaker said on Thursday.

Among reasons for withholding the information, Alberta Environment argued releasing the details would be "harmful to intergovernmental relations." The matter was to go to an inquiry before the province’s information and privacy commissioner this summer but in May the government finally handed over the assessments.

They revealed that in the northern region, 51 per cent of treatment plants assessed in 2003 and 2004 received grades of four or five, with five being the lowest possible score. In the central region, 43 per cent received poor marks while in the south 70 per cent scored poorly.

Brubaker, in Edmonton as a speaker at the Epcor lecture series, said the case demonstrates an inherent conflict in having a public regulator such as Alberta Environment oversee publicly run treatment plants.

"The provincial government has this cozy relationship with its municipal water providers, this is an old boy network. Nobody wants to embarrass anybody else."

Part of the problem is the government puts up much of the money for improvements to water treatment. When a government is paying the tab it is less likely to be eager to insist on higher standards.

In the case of the Alberta plants that scored poorly, the government increased spending to improve them. It also issued assurances that despite the low scores, the water was safe to drink.

Even so, it’s wiser to hand the operation of treatment plants to private operators. The government can use enforceable contracts to ensure that operators meet standards, Brubaker said. "An enforceable contract makes a big difference.

"The government can include penalties for not meeting these requirements. It can even include termination of the contract for not meeting the requirements."

She said municipally run systems are "never going to threaten to terminate their own operations."

Private operators often turn out to be considerably cheaper because they must bid competitively and research ways to become more efficient, she said. It’s no coincidence that high-profile cases of contaminated water systems – such as at Walkerton and on the Kashechewan reserve in Ontario – involved public operators. The communities both brought in private contractors.

As for Epcor, a corporation wholly owned by the City of Edmonton, Brubaker said it shares some features of a municipal entity and some of a private contractor. Its role as a contractor is clearest when it bids on projects in jurisdictions outside the city.

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