"Missouri water is easier to treat," he explains. "It's a gold mine."

As the Chain of Rocks Plant fades in the rearview mirror, he turns west toward the smaller Howard Bend facility, tucked away behind a hill on a cornfield in Chesterfield. Chain of Rocks treats about 240 million gallons a day; Howard Bend churns out roughly 120 million.

Unlike other municipalities that rely on aquifers or wells, or suffer in long periods without rain, St. Louis enjoys an abundant supply from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers at its back door. In 2012 the two treatment facilities collectively pumped 46.6 billion gallons of water to residents and businesses throughout the city and parts of the county.

Ted agreed to take Riverfront Times on a driving tour of the city's water-treatment facilities after corresponding with the paper for weeks. He was the first in a string of water-division employees to reach out to RFT after it became clear that the city was poised to strike a deal with Veolia. None agreed to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

"I'm not a disgruntled employee," Ted insists. "I'm proud of what I do. But this is wrong, the way it's going down."

The water department — like the airport — is a self-sustaining enterprise that pays for itself. Historically, that has afforded St. Louis the luxury of relatively cheap water. The same is true today, even though rates have increased 50 percent since 2004. The few city residents whose water use is metered pay 25 percent less per gallon than their counterparts in the county. The vast majority of the city's residents — about 80,000 customers — pay a flat rate for their water that's even cheaper, based on the number of rooms ($3.76 each), and showers and baths ($12.35 each).

It's a low price for a great product. Just six years ago St. Louis earned the title of "Best Tasting City Water in America" at the 2007 U.S. Conference of Mayors. Ironically, perhaps, it was Veolia that wrote the city a $15,000 check for winning the award.

And while much is being made today about fiscal uncertainties at the water department, the issues it faced two years are no longer as dire. Since the summer of 2010, chemical costs dropped, revenue increased slightly, and the utility's costs remained roughly flat. Still, the mayor's office has concerns.

Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, says the utility's two facilities are too large for the city's population. Plus, he says, the cost of chemicals is volatile and could rise again, and the utility is still using crumbling infrastructure that will need to be replaced in the very near future.

"We think if we do nothing we will be in almost the same situation as before," Rainford says.

So for the past two and a half years the city has been searching for the right impartial third party to assess the water division and make it more efficient.

But impartiality was the furthest thing from Ted's mind the day he first noticed Veolia employees touring the plant.

"It's absolutely a sin to let them come in here," he says. "Everybody is on edge."


Former alderman Villa remembers when the calls started coming in the fall of 2010.

"I used to have water-division employees call me. They said, 'The rumor around here is Veolia is taking tours of our facilities, and they're going to buy the asset,'" he recalls. "The employees were fearful."

It seems likely that most of the initial paranoia stemmed from Veolia's reputation. The company is almost as old as the 178-year-old St. Louis Water Division itself, tracing its earliest roots to Napoleon III's initiative to bring the first water service to Paris. Today, it has become a multinational juggernaut that runs water, waste, energy and transportation services all over the world. It provides water services in 8,500 cities. In 2011 it reported $39.8 billion in revenue.

"We're number-one in the world," says Matt Demo, spokesperson for Veolia Waters North America from their U.S. headquarters in Chicago.

One of the things Veolia specializes in is turning public utilities into public-private hybrids. Veolia runs the operations for profit, but cities retain ownership of the asset. Until 2010 it ran the water department in Paris. Just last week it was awarded a 30-year contract to run the water system in Rialto, California.

Given that fact, it struck some as an odd coincidence that Veolia managers were spotted at the utility a mere three months after the publication of a study by the Show-Me Institute, the libertarian think tank run by multimillionaire political financier Rex Sinquefield. The paper, written by policy analyst David Stokes, makes an enthusiastic case for privatizing St. Louis' water utility.

"The Saint Louis Water Division can be described as a municipal utility that provides high-quality water at an affordable price to the people of Saint Louis," Stokes wrote. "It is also a valuable asset that could be auctioned to a private water utility, generating an enormous amount of money for the city and its taxpayers."

Villa says that when he followed up with the mayor's office, he was assured that the Veolia representatives were merely taking a tour. David Hunn of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a story saying as much, quoting from an e-mail Rainford sent to a water-division employee:

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7 comments
scott19674
scott19674 topcommenter

Good story. That's what the hell I'm talking about. Strong work.

opaart52
opaart52

As a water division employee we hear all the rumors. Most of us are hard working and take pride in our jobs. The public would be surprised at how few of us there are on the streets doing the actual work.And when the mayor came to "explain" what this all meant I don't think there was one worker who believed him .Why management doesn't ask us how to improve the division is beyond me!

klogansmith
klogansmith

What do we do? Here's my list.

1. We demand that the Board of E&A Dump Veolia Feb. 20th at its meeting (2 p.m City Hall Room 200). Show up. The Board of E&A is Darlene Green, Lewis Reed, Francis Slay.

2. We demand an open and transparent process going forward. STL cannot afford any more scandals about public money going for private gain. And we cannot trust our water to just anyone.

3. We convene a citizens stakeholder group to review the problems in the water system (they are substantial). The group must include businesses, institutions, and residents and must not be selected among the usual list of political friends of the Mayor.

There is nothing more important to our future than our water. It is worth the time, and investment.
Are you in?

kennthnrmn
kennthnrmn

Why aren't the residents a part of this. Why is it a few people have all control over  turning our water that is rightfully called (Saint Louis Water Division)?  Something this big should come to a vote by the people.  And this company is from another country with offices in AMERICA.  I say this all the time ,but this country is being sold out to other countries and fat cats like Mckee and the northside deal ,right up under our noses, and the people say nothing. Darlene Green and Lewis Reed  can stop this, but i don't know about Reed as Mayor and definatly notSlay  and  Mathews is out of the question.  SO WHAT DO WE DO.

bill
bill

@opaart52 Why must management "ask" for how to make improvements!  Get off your duff, make improvements and rise to the top of the management chain!

opaart52
opaart52

@bill   You either do not work for the city or know anyone who does. We are tolod that we are paid to do not think. I try to do more than I am required to do however when I see all the waste and stupidity coming from on "high", we all become very discouraged that there is anything that can be done!

 
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