At a time when governments are encouraging seniors to stay in their own homes for as long as possible, Saint John is charging them more for water than anyone else in the city, including the billionaires who operate Canada’s largest oil refinery and a major pulp and paper mill.
Ever since the late industrialist, K.C. Irving, demanded and got a 25-year ‘sweetheart’ deal for the pulp mill in Saint John in 1957, the family has continued to negotiate ‘special agreements’ with the city that provide a steady flow of cheap water to fuel their industrial enterprises. The more they use, the less they pay.
The demand for water by the Irving Pulp and Paper mill is almost insatiable. It gorges 40 million cubic metres of water out of Spruce Lake annually, causing many to believe that the only reason thousands of west side homeowners were switched to wells two years ago, was to ensure a never-ending supply for the industrialists.
I understand that the costs of getting the water to me and other homeowners in such a sprawling city as Saint John, with so many old pipes that need to be replaced, is greater than the cost of getting water to the pulp mill, and that my water is potable, whereas the mill uses raw, untreated water. Some will use this to justify charging residential users more for their water than industry has to pay for its water. But I reject this argument, at least in part, given that industry pollutes the air (we have among the highest lung cancer rates in Canada*), which leads to higher healthcare costs. The pulp mill also adds considerable heavy truck traffic to our streets and bridges, which then require more costly maintenance and repairs for which we, the taxpayers, foot the bill. When there’s a butane leak or explosion at the Irving Oil Refinery, who pays for emergency services? We all know the answer. We do, in both dollars and potential lives lost. Furthermore, the refinery and the pulp mill don’t pay their fair share of taxes on their industrial lands or equipment. They get a break at every turn.
The average Canadian uses between 80 and 100 cubic meters of water annually, or between 220 and 250 litres per day. As a single retiree, I use considerably less, so I’ll use the bottom end of that range for the purposes of calculating my own costs. I pay a set rate of $1,428 per year for approximately 80 cubic meters of water (and sewage), which equals $18 per cubic meter. The Irving Pulp and Paper mill consumes 40 million cubic meters per year and because of a ‘special agreement’, it pays only 8 cents per cubic meter, about 3 million dollars annually. There is something drastically wrong with this picture.
How much would the pulp mill pay if it too were charged $18 per cubic meter? Not $3 million per year, but an astounding $720 million. We all know that would be unreasonable. There is no way the mill could be profitable at anywhere near that rate. But, if you are inclined to cry for the billionaires, how about a tear or two for senior citizens or the working poor who are struggling to stay in their homes and DO have to pay $18 per cubic meter of water.
By comparison, the City of Toronto charges industrial customers $3.95 per cubic meter for the first 5,000 cubic meters of water and then gives them a 30 per cent discount; lowering the rate to $2.77 per cubic meter.
Again, depending on how much water each industrial enterprise in Saint John uses, they have a ‘special agreement’ with Saint John Water that allows them to pay pennies on the dollar for this precious resource. While the pulp mill pays 8 cents per cubic metre; the refinery pays 26 cents; still far below the $18 that I am forced to pay for what little water I use, and substantially less than the City of Toronto charges its industrial customers.
If the powers to be were to raise the industrial rate for water even to a still ridiculously low rate of 40 cents per cubic meter, the City of Saint John could wipe out its entire projected 2021 deficit of $12 million and have substantial additional revenue coming into the public purse year after year to pay for public transit, road repairs, lifeguards etc., instead of having to cut services as planned. The city’s ‘financial crisis’ would be solved overnight.
It is time we treated water for what it is; a valuable resource that is owned by the public. Only the public should determine what it is worth.
Doug James is a member of the Saint John Citizens Coalition
*This article was revised several hours after posting to clarify that Saint John has among the highest lung cancer rates in the country. The original article said Saint John has the highest. Statistics Canada (Table: 13-10-0112-01) data for lung and bronchial cancers for the period 2013 to 2015 shows that Saint John and Peterborough, ON were almost tied for the highest rate among Canadian cities (Saint John had 103.4 and Peterborough had 104.2 incidences per 100,000 population). Other research has found that the lung cancer rate in Saint John is 50% higher than in Fredericton and also that the high rates of lung cancer in Saint John were more likely linked to occupational and environmental exposure to pollutants than to smoking.