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Privatization: Security Risk?

POSTED July 31, 2012 10:05 p.m.

With the privatization of Oakdale’s waste water treatment plant and other city water services under consideration, opponents warn that one overlooked factor with the cost saving measure may very well be the security of the facility and future compliance to Homeland Security measures and other mandates.

Potential Threats

The city’s water infrastructure is vulnerable to an array of attacks through contamination, release of toxic chemicals, and possible cyber-attacks to its IT systems that control a variety of functions. If these occurrences were achieved, in addition to the public fear that would be instilled and the societal disruption, the consequences could be public illnesses, casualties, or interruption of service that would affect citizens and the local economy.

In recent years, The Department of Homeland Security has publicized that cities have taken “great strides” toward protecting water resources from terrorism acts, pointing specifically to the vulnerability assessment requirements in the Bioterrorism Act, which addresses water treatment facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security’s most decisive step with regard to the protection of privately operated critical infrastructure systems may be the department’s information sharing system. Yet even this is optional, as companies are asked “…to voluntarily submit infrastructure information to the federal government to assist the nation in reducing its vulnerability to terrorist attacks.”

According to a 2002 report by the National Academies of Science, privatization introduces “new uncertainties” with regard to water system security. In particular, heightened homeland security requirements raise questions about “the willingness of the private sector to assume the attendant risks under today’s laws and insurance markets.”

City Employee Views

“The ‘lowest bid’ process would be the real danger,” said Public Works employee and Oakdale resident Chris Robinette.

“That’s when corners get cut. There’s strict criteria to follow now.”

Robinette added that private water companies view water as a commodity from which to derive profits, rather than a public resource to be managed in the public interest.

Oakdale Wastewater Plant Supervisor John Lane said he was concerned that if water services and water treatment were privatized, there could be an operational threat that adequate protection, or at least added protection needed to meet any new or developing threats, would be available only if it could be afforded through increased rates and not any previous governmental mandates as they operate through now.

Department of Homeland Security in a 2004 Law Enforcement Advisory also warned that; “Extensive background checks may not be conducted on employees and contractor personnel in privatization settings.”

As Oakdale city executive staff and elected officials weigh the advantages of any privatization of services toward the budget, it must also balance public health and safety to protect residents from assaults on that most basic and necessary of public services – water and wastewater treatment. But taking the necessary steps will require officials acting in the interest of people, rather than budgetary numbers and corporations that aim to control water for profit.

“The water treatment plant is a critical part of our infrastructure,” agreed Interim City Manager Stan Feathers. “Security issues will be addressed as part of the city’s RFP (bid) process.”

Environmental Concerns And Transparency

For approximately 40 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been a full partner with the states and local governments in meeting the nation’s wastewater treatment needs to protect land and waterways. However, if Oakdale were to privatize operations, EPA review and approval of the changeover and any of the personnel or any new methods is not required even if the facility was constructed using its federal construction grants.

Another effect of privatization is the transparency of the operation of the water system or wastewater treatment. With the possibility of corporate operation resisting any implementation of a regulatory oversight administration, there is the potential for the loss of openness and candidness of the business’s policies, procedures, and practices.

In California, deliberations of governmental bodies are subject to the Brown Act provisions that require open meetings and records. Once a private firm assumes operations, it is no longer clear that business practices and accounts will be open to the public. To ensure transparency, city leaders may have to include such agreements specified in the contract.

Last month the city introduced a five-segment proposal toward privatization of public works services. It has already implemented Phase Two of the proposal which included laying off the deputy director of public works and an analyst. The other phases are in various stages of examination and implementation and are subject to city council approval.

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