Since then, Dump Veolia has been calling attention to the blemishes on Veolia's reputation. In Indianapolis, where the company ran the water utility, the company is currently the defendant in two class-action lawsuits that accuse them of over-billing customers. The city bought Veolia out of its contract early after a slew of allegations of mismanagement, price gouging and even lowering the water quality to save money. A nonprofit watchdog group out of Washington, D.C., called Food & Water Watch has also had its eye on Veolia for years.

"We have seen examples where they've managed sewage systems; under their management there's been sewage spills," says Mary Grant, a researcher at Food & Water Watch. "There's also a lot of private companies in general when they take over, they do engage in corner cutting."

Kat Logan Smith, the director of environmental policy for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, is one of the local environmentalists opposed to working with Veolia.

Mayor Slay and his challenger, Lewis Reed (far right), discussed Veolia during a January mayoral debate.
Theo R. Welling
Mayor Slay and his challenger, Lewis Reed (far right), discussed Veolia during a January mayoral debate.

"This is a company with a bad record," she says. "We don't necessarily want this particular company making any decisions about [our water] at all, end of story."

On December 19, 2012, the Veolia contract was set to be approved by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, a three-member board made of Slay, Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green. After Dump Veolia inundated Reed and Green's offices with calls, both politicians balked at the vote and suggested the contract should go back to the search committee. When the contract — unchanged — found its way back onto the next E&A meeting agenda on January 16, several dozen Dump Veolia members lined the hallway in front of the mayor's office.

Rather than force the contract through on January 16, the E&A Board pulled it from the meeting. Afterward, Green made public a letter she wrote to Reed asking him to hold hearings on the contract "as soon as possible."

"There is unending controversy surrounding this proposed contract. There are allegations regarding the purpose and intent of the Water Division in the proposed collaboration with Veolia, as well as serious allegations regarding Veolia's performances and results in other cities," she wrote. "Veolia deserves to be heard in a public forum as well."

Veolia's voice has been largely silent in the ensuing public uproar. While it has faced legal action elsewhere, there are also water managers in other cities who will vouch for the company's services. Siegfried, the study manager for the St. Louis contract should it ever move forward, says the meetings that have already taken place at the water division have given him some idea of what he would tackle. The department's vehicle fleet would need an upgrade; he would assess why water usage is so high per customer in St. Louis as compared to other cities and attempt to find ways to pay for badly needed capital improvements. Siegfried is also adamant that the Veolia recommendations would never touch the St. Louis water formula.

"They have excellent-tasting water. They have never had an EPA violation for water. That is not something that can be compromised," he says.

Siegfried also emphatically echoes the answer that Slay has given in public whenever asked about the contract: no layoffs, no privatization.

"What we're there to do is help you have a more efficient operation," he says, "Why would you be upset about that?"

The mayor is running late.

Every seat in the basement of the Carpenter branch of the St. Louis Public Library in Tower Grove South is filled for a January 24 mayoral-candidate forum. By the time Slay arrives, his opponent, board of aldermen president Lewis Reed, has come and gone.

Slay unwinds a scarf from his neck and is ushered to the front of the room where he leaps into a five-minute pitch on why he should become the first St. Louis mayor ever to win a fourth consecutive term. He covers crime, education, the fight against homelessness, the economy, public health.

"I've got a great team, an honest team in place," he concludes. "We get things done."

The moderator steps up and begins reading question cards submitted from the audience. Then he reads a question he wrote himself.

"One of my big concerns is the city's relationship with Veolia," he begins. "Why should St. Louis spend $250,000 on a consultation contract with a company which makes its money from running and owning water supplies?"

In the audience several members are wearing "Dump Veolia" stickers. There's anti-Veolia literature on a back table. And when Reed answered the same question ten minutes earlier by slamming Veolia, the entire room broke into applause.

"I appreciate the question," Slay begins. "It gives me an opportunity to clarify a lot of misinformation. And believe me there's a lot."

Slay reemphasizes that the contract is not a path to privatization.

"They're not going to run the water department; they're not going to make any decisions in our water department whatsoever," he says emphatically. "Maybe we won't get the votes. You know, others are afraid that these fears and misinformation may come to reality. I can promise you as your mayor that they will not. This department is not going to be sold."

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