Water in New Brunswick: rights and the environment versus big business

Written by Abram Lutes on September 10, 2019

Water Is Life. Graphic by Christi Belcourt.

Protestors at Standing Rock, North Dakota popularized the protest slogan “water is life” when they stood down an oil pipeline development threatening their lakes and rivers. The slogan has become popular among Indigenous and non-indigenous environmental and water rights activists in Canada, including in New Brunswick where it has been used by anti-fracking movements.

In a survey conducted by Louise Comeau and the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, freshwater was named by respondents as the second most important natural resource of the province, only behind forestry, and protecting freshwater quality and water access is a priority for many New Brunswickers.

But government policy seems to lag behind public priorities. Provincial and federal governments have tolerated or approved several private projects which have or may contaminate freshwater in the province. For example, the federal government approved a tailings dam for the controversial Sisson mine in two fish-bearing brooks that feed the Nashwaak River watershed. Greater awareness of water quality issues arising from waste dumping and water sources have entered the public discourse since Irving Pulp and Paper was added to the federal list of environmental offenders.

Water is governed by a complex mix of federal, provincial, municipal, and now increasingly First Nations regulations. Who, if anyone, owns freshwater in Canada is unclear. Yet increasingly different levels of government in New Brunswick are signing away water access and ownership to private companies at the expense of drinking water access, sustainability, and the public service.

Moncton and Saint John, the two largest municipalities in the province, now both operate their municipal drinking water services through a Public-Private Partnership, or P3. P3s are formal partnerships between a public authority and the private sector. In the case of Moncton and Saint John, the P3 involves a joint venture of various private companies operating the municipal water service on behalf of the municipal government.

P3s are often marketed as a means for governments to deliver services while reducing costs by involving the private sector. However, recent studies say that on average P3s cost 16% more than conventional contracts. In New Brunswick, the auditor-general found that outsourcing construction by P3s cost significantly more than if construction was carried out by public works. The estimated overcharge is $200 million given out in private-sector contracts.

Furthermore, P3 delivering of water raises concerns about popular control and decision-making over how New Brunswickers get their drinking water. In the Saint John partnership, for example, the private consortium of owners in the P3 agreement could change if the private providers decide to sell their stakes in the project, without any public consultation or oversight. The current composition of private companies in the Saint John partnership includes water multinational Acciona Aqua; the North America Construction company, SIMO Management Inc.; two engineering and consulting firms, AMEC Foster-Wheeler and Stantec; and two local Irving-owned companies, FCC Construction and Gulf Operators.

P3s also tend to increase user fees in order to make the operation of services profitable for private companies, and the private ownership of the water means those who do not pay their water utility bills can be cut off, presenting potential threats to the human right to clean water.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) New Brunswick have campaigned against P3s. In May 2018, Leo Melanson, President of CUPE Local 51 which represents outside workers in Moncton, wrote in the NB Media Co-op: “Based on the experience of other communities in Canada and around the world, bringing our water services into the City’s operations will save money and enhance water quality. The vast majority of water and wastewater systems in Canada are fully public. Going “in house” is also one of the best ways to help our local economy. Residents and water consumers in the private and public sector all have an interest in having predictable and affordable water rates.”

A report by the Columbia Institute profiles several cities across the country where P3s have been cancelled and municipal returned to an “in house” public model, including in Saint John. The city canceled its P3 for waste collection after outsize costs. The move saved the city $700,000 a year.

Abram Lutes is a Masters student at Carleton University, studying political economy.

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