EXCLUSIVE: The cost of privatization – Pontiac has water contamination issues under United Water

This past year, the Emergency Manager of Pontiac at the time, Michael Stampfler signed a five-year contract with United Water to run their water and wastewater treatment systems. The move was said to save Pontiac an astonishing $2.8 million per year.

I broke a story that made national news about the fact that, by hiring United Water, Stampfler had hired a company facing a multiple felony counts by the U.S. Justice Department for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

United Water Services Inc., the former contract operator of the Gary Sanitary District wastewater treatment works in Gary, Ind., and two of its employees, were charged today with conspiracy and felony violations of the Clean Water Act in a 26-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury, the Justice Department announced today.

United Water Services Inc., and employees Dwain L. Bowie, and Gregory A. Ciaccio, have been charged with manipulating daily wastewater sampling methods by turning up disinfectant treatment levels shortly before sampling, then turning them down shortly after sampling.

~SNIP~

According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to tamper with E. coli monitoring methods by turning up levels of disinfectant dosing prior to E. coli sampling. The indictment states that the defendants would avoid taking E. coli samples until disinfectants had reached elevated levels, which in turn were expected to lead to reduced E. coli levels. Immediately after sampling, the indictment alleges, the defendants turned down disinfectant levels, thus reducing the amount of treatment chemicals they used.

~SNIP~

The case was investigated by the Northern District of Indiana Environmental Crimes Task Force, including agents from the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and the Indiana State Police. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Indiana and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.

In November 2011, current Emergency Manager Lou Schimmel fired some key Public Works employees and United Water took over operations completely.

Well, it turns out that there is trouble in paradise. In their effort to cut costs to the bone at the expense of public employees, residents last week have been reporting issues with the quality of their water. Daily Kos commenter “ChemBob” dropped this comment on one of my posts at the site:

United Water has taken over operation of our water and wastewater treatment here in Pontiac. Happened in July. We have an emergency manager, naturally.

Never had a problem here before (been in house about 1.3 years now), but during the past week or slightly more, we and the neighbors have had rusty brown tap water three separate days. We’ve all called United, multiple times. We saw a truck at the fire hydrant once, but the rusty water was back two days later. We ask for a call back to let us know what they are doing, but they never return our calls.

This is the beauty of privatization: they really aren’t responsible to the people, their customers, anymore, and I doubt the emergency manager could care any less.

I inquired further and what ChemBob shared with me as well as United Water’s rather shocking response is after the jump.

[W]e never had a problem before (granted we’ve only lived in Pontiac for about 1.3 years).

The first indication of a problem, on Jan 17 I believe, was a tub full of bath water that, apparently, came out clear and then turned brown while [my wife] was bathing. This sounds to me like ferrous iron oxidizing to ferric iron when exposed to the oxygen in the atmosphere and precipitating. My first thought (paranoia) was that there might be an expensive repair needed in the line to our house. Michele called our next-door neighbor and spoke with her. She ran her tub full of water and the same thing happened. The neighbor then called United Water, who apparently sent a truck out to purge the fire hydrant on the corner. Why this would help, I don’t know.

The water seemed fine until the 19th, at which time it did the same thing only with a lighter rust color. I called United Water, had several calls ahead of me, left a message notifying them of the problem and asking them to call back and let me know what they would do to correct it. Naturally they never called back. We again called the neighbor, who again had the same problem. Turns out that the day before (I think it was the day before) she had spoken with our neighbor across the street who had apparently noticed the water problem some time before us and had been boiling her drinking water; I don’t know if the second neighbor had notified United, but it seems likely that she did. The first neighbor also called United Water on the 19th, possibly also on the 18th. As far as we can tell, they’ve done nothing to respond to our concerns, including no return phone calls. Michele’s bath yesterday (I’m a shower guy, didn’t notice) was apparently grey-colored water with black flecks in it.

I haven’t been in touch with any others in the neighborhood to determine whether they have called United. We are in the [redacted] block of Cherokee Road in the historic Seminole Hills district of Pontiac. I mention this both because this is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Pontiac (probably with the highest property taxes, but I don’t know that for certain) and because many of us have steam boilers and radiators for our heating. This sort of contamination in the incoming water is not just a health issue (although it can be a serious one), but can be very damaging to the boilers, causing sediment accumulation that can result in improper operation and potential failure of the systems.

As you probably already know, United has been cited for violations in other locations with regard to falsifying water treatment results, etc. It certainly seems to me that the emergency manager and City of Pontiac should have taken that into careful consideration before contracting United. They should at least have an independent person or company to monitor their performance.

Drinking water quality was one of the things we have always taken for granted in this country. Our towns and cities always had the health and well-being of their citizens as a priority. Apparently the only thing that matters for the emergency managers is the bottom line and the people can be damned.

I contacted United Water to ask them (a) what the source of the contamination is and (b) why residents’ calls to them were not being returned. Here is the answer I received:

Thank you for passing this information along to us Chris. We polled our utility field and office staffs and cannot find any record of a report of this issue over the past several weeks. We certainly want to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible but do not know where to begin. If we can get any contact information from the party raising this issue, we will be happy to follow up and investigate the matter yet today. They can email us at UWPontiacWater@unitedwater.com or call at 248-335-6399. Again, thank you for bringing this to our attention.

In other words, United Water does not appear to maintain records when complaints about contamination of the drinking water of their residents are received. No call logs. No record. Nobody knows nuthin’. That’s public service on a budget, clear and simple.

Pontiac seems to be in the bulls eye in terms of mismanagement by an Emergency Manager. Recently, U.S. Congressman Gary Peters stepped in to help save the city millions in federal grant funds that Schimmel essentially gave away.

When Stampfler privatized Pontiac’s water & wastewater treatment to United Water, many questioned how on earth there could by $2.8 million per year in money to be saved. I suggested that hiring a company facing a serious 26-count federal indictment might be the reason.

It now appears that the cost-cutting move is beginning to have a serious and worrisome impact on the residents of Pontiac.

If you or anyone you know lives in Pontiac and are having issues with water quality, please contact me using the email link under my logo. This is a potential public safety and health issue and I will be following it closely.

UPDATE: This is an update from ChemBob at Daily Kos:

United Water told our neighbor when she called in that no one was doing any work on the water in the area. She was told that they would send someone out to flush out the fire hydrants. That is what we observed about an hour later or so. There was no work going on that we saw prior to that.

Some folks are saying that this is simply the flushing of hydrants, totally normal. If that’s the case, why didn’t United Water let the residents know as happens pretty much everywhere else? (I have personally gotten these notices.) Also, too, why did they tell ChemBob’s neighbor that they weren’t flushing hydrants in the area? It seems very clear to me that customer service is something they have cut to save money. So much for Governor Snyder’s call for better “customer service” by the government for Michigan residents.

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  • ionize

    My friend with the oakland county sheriff’s dept indicated to me the several hydrants in many areas of Pontiac were checked and opened due to prior lack of maintainance with them.  Several hydrants were also repaired that had been vandalized in the past and were not working.  My research on the net showed rusty water often is a result of hydrants being opened.
      On a side note, why not tell all the good folks here how much better the police response times are now that the OC sheriff patrols the roads-one step more toward a better Pontiac!

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3IA7JCKK2LYPWIBXOWOWRPQG3Y Kenneth Allen

      The Rusty water is coming from the Old Water Pipes that have not been replaced for years. Some of these water pipes have been in the ground from the 1950’s

      • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

        Explain, then, why it’s not continuously rusty. Your comment is illogical.

  • imhotep

    Not knowing anything about this other than having read this and talked to a friend a little, my research shows … nothing conclusive.
    But, hey, since I don’t have any empirical data, let’s take an opportunity to root for contracting out the police’s job to … a public, taxpayer-supported agency.

  • Jdwiojef465

    Our water and sewer authority is still government controlled, and ANY issues we have are usually corrected immediately. It is a good feeling knowing that a water company which has NO interest in saving and profiting will look out for their taxpaying customers.
    On another note, before our state privatized home heating gas, the average cost to users was about $40 a month. The (lying) argument towards privatization was that competition would drive down prices. Didn’t happen. The average monthly cost actually went up to $200 a month. Many low-income people then had their gas cut-off in the coldest part of winter (and some died) because of inability to pay. Privatizing does NOT work. 

    • Hok9er

      Maybe United Water or the emerg manager has investments in a bottle water company.

  • Saralynne65

    Boil your drinking water. You can’t trust them.

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