Camden’s Privatized Water Hides Data on Shut-Offs
National Advocacy Group Files Suit to Get Information from NJ American Water
In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit for New Jersey, the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch is suing the city of Camden in order to force the New Jersey American Water company to release details on water shutoffs in the city.
When water service is made unaffordable, there can be widespread water shutoffs in communities across the country. These shutoffs threaten public health, community wellbeing and basic human dignity. Without running water, people cannot cook, clean, shower, wash their hands or flush their toilets. Unaffordable water bills can lead to evictions and tax foreclosures, and water shutoffs have even led to children being taken from their homes under child protection laws.
There are obvious race and class dimensions to the water affordability crisis. A study of Boston found significantly more shutoff notices in areas of the city with higher proportions of people of color. And in economically distressed cities, the proportion of people who experience water shutoffs is disturbing. In 2015, about one in five customers in New Orleans, Louisiana and Gary, Indiana had their service cut off. In cities like Detroit, Birmingham, Alabama and Youngstown, Ohio, about 1 in 8 customers had lost service.
When water service is handled by a publicly owned utility or municipality, data on shutoffs is a matter of public record. New Jersey American Water has a service contract to run the water system for the city of Camden, but neither entity will make information about shutoffs available to the public. This arrangement essentially hides shutoff information behind the veil of these private contracts.
“Access to clean, affordable drinking water is a key issue of public health,” said Lena Smith, Senior New Jersey Organizer and Policy Advocate at Food & Water Watch. “New Jersey American Water profits from controlling what should be a public service. If the company is denying water to residents due their inability to pay, this should be a matter of public record.”
In addition to the service contract, American Water has a major footprint in Camden. The company is building a massive new waterfront headquarters in the city, thanks to a multi-million dollar tax break that was approved in 2015.
Water privatization is a concern across the state, with about 40% of households statewide getting water from private companies like New Jersey American Water. That company is also under additional scrutiny due to its plan to raise rates statewide; customers will see an increase in their bills starting June 15.
“We know water privatization can bring higher rates and worse service. Now, we see how it could be used to hide vital information from the public about accessibility to safe, clean water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “People shouldn’t have to sue to find out basic information about their water systems from secretive companies.”