We often talk about the impacts of drinking water privatization in North Carolina, but did you know that out of state for-profit corporations are also buying up small sewage treatment plants? Utilities Inc. and its subsidiaries have over 19,000 sewer customers in 19 NC counties, and Aqua NC has 12,000 sewer customers in 19 counties. Apart from these two “giants,” there are 70 more private companies operating sewage systems in the state.
Small, pre-engineered sewage treatment plants have cropped up where environmental conditions don’t support septic systems and municipal service hasn’t kept up with rapid rural and suburban development. Aqua NC and Utilities Inc. have purchased many of the now-aging plants, promising capital investments and upgrades, and hiking up customer rates sharply (Aqua sewer customers pay a flat monthly fee of $65.21). Private companies are also in the business of installing new plants, enabling developers to build where existing sewer infrastructure doesn’t exist, a profitable deal for both parties.
Yet investigations show that Aqua NC has the fourth-highest number of water quality violations in the state from its 60 sewage treatment plants. Our own research indicates that 78% of Aqua NC’s wastewater facilities and 71% of Utilities Inc.’s wastewater facilities have been in violation of standards at least once in the last three years, and yet monetary fines for all polluters have decreased sharply since the legislature passed a sweeping regulatory reform bill (S781) in 2011.
Private companies may attempt to increase profit margins by skimping on maintenance and personnel, leading to preventable spills and overflows. In Tega Cay, South Carolina, just south of Charlotte, sewage spills stopped almost immediately after the town bought problematic sewage systems from Utilities Inc., by prioritizing regular maintenance and repairs the company had neglected. Sewer customers of Aqua NC and Utilities Inc. pay some of the highest prices in the state, many times without the benefits of proper upkeep and repairs to their neighborhood sewage plants.
For more information on the empty promises of privatized sewer service in NC, stay tuned for the upcoming publication of a new CWFNC report by 2014 summer intern Chandler Keenan!