Kiger’s steps evaluating Heavener water complaints

Article Image Alt Text

The goal in Heavener has always been about one thing and one thing only, for residents, businesses and industries to receive what most people receive when paying their monthly water bill; to have clean and safe water coming out of their faucets, baths and showers.

For those on the other side who are coming up with reasons why I’m working this hard with city officials, here’s an easy to follow map that makes it crystal clear:

I was elected as the State Representative of District 3, which includes incorporated and unincorporated cities throughout LeFlore County approximating to around 38,000 people. Regardless of your party affiliation, if you are one of these 38,000, I’m here to help you with the problems you can’t solve. State responsibilities for our people take precedence over city and county government and regulated entities or businesses.

When I started receiving complaints from people living in Heavener on dirty water, I had talked months earlier on two occasions with the city manager about possible options fixing their old water lines and pipes. I was also told the city didn’t have a map showing all the water lines.

I believe most people who have followed this issue have always thought like me that the lines being old were the main cause of dirty water, but at time the water was not only dirty but smelled like sewage and would come out black, purple or a bright orange color.

Without knowing how much debt the city had at that time on water infrastructure (nearly $8M), I passed on a name of someone who said the new lines should not have to cost $4M and shouldn’t have required a loan for 50 years on the backs of residents.

With citizens telling me they’ve complained to city leaders and me knowing this has been a problem for decades, I made the decision not to ask permission to represent my constituents and called a Town Hall meeting to begin the process.

As I met with people and started receiving information and pictures, water professionals begin to contact me and said we need to focus on more than just the water being dirty.

As we took a closer look we began to see signs beyond dirty water that led us to the questions about possible issues at the water treatment facility itself. Heavener receives its water from the Poteau River and has a 3rd party company hired to process their water, Veolia.

At Town Hall meetings people begin bringing in water samples that were black along with clothing and filters streaked with the same black like substances.

This led us to question the process, procedure and operations of the water treatment plant and the personnel.

As we looked at the treatment facility it made sense to have a 3rd party water treatment professional take a look at all aspects of this facility making water.

We immediately started receiving push back that slowed down the process of possibly finding out why Heavener water is at times black and stinks.

This led us to take a closer look at possible conflicts of interest or other reasons leaders allowed the water to continue as is for so long. One thing we know for sure, but don’t know yet if it’s a violation of state law, one city council person has a son-in-law that heads up the water treatment plant for Veolia that worked prior for the city of Heavener at the water plant. Regardless if this is legal or not, many think and see it as a real conflict in getting the water issues solved and I agree.

The next thing that started happening were the emails of links showing Veolia named in multiple law suits across the United States.

Veolia is viewed as the world’s largest water service corporation and has revenues of approximately $27M annually and serving over 555 cities and communities.

The city manager of Heavener last week answered a question from a resident at one of my Town Hall meetings stating that the city pays Veolia approximately $192,000 a month for producing potable water. This comes to approximately $2.3M annually.

My biggest concerns with Veolia running the treatment facility questions around the plant being manned enough. Currently the manned coverage at the plant is from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm Monday through Friday, with no one on site evenings or weekends.

Water quality changes constantly which means treatment and chemicals have to be added to balance out the problems. I’m not convinced that Veolia is supplying these young men everything they need or meeting the contract agreement with the city of Heavener. These points, along with the many lawsuits I’ve learned about against Veolia, tell me to take a closer look at Veolia, the company headquartered in Paris, France.

In an article written October 26, 2014 Mother Jones used the following headline related to Veolia. “They will come in, rape your water company, and leave with money bags.” Various other local news outlets have posted articles about their cities’ dealings with Veolia and the aftermath.

·         Veolia was hired by the city of Pittsburg to manage day-to-day operations and provide an interim executive team, helping the utility run more efficiently and save precious public dollars. Under the terms of the contract, Veolia would keep roughly half of every dollar the utility saved under its guidance.

·         The city of Pittsburg found elevated levels of lead in tap water samples in some of their homes. Prior to Veolia, samples had always been normal. Seventeen percent of samples had high lead levels, which can cause serious health problems.

·         By the end of 2015, the utility laid off or fired 23 people-including the safety and water quality managers, and the heads of finance and engineering, according to documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request. The PWSA laboratory staff, which was responsible for testing water quality throughout the 100,000-cusomer system, was cut in half. A water quality director with 36 years of experience (referred to as Dr. Water) was transferred to an office job in research and became frustrated and retired. 

·         Many suspect that the change in water treatment chemicals led to the jump in lead levels. The city is currently conducting an internal investigation into the cause.

·         But Pittsburg citizen’s complaints about Pittsburgh’s water goes beyond poor water quality-it’s also extraordinarily expensive. In 2013, a year after Veolia was hired, the water board approved a 20 percent rate increase over four years; by 2017, the average residential water bill will be $50 per month-triple the average Midwest cost.

·         Soon after residents complained that their bills were coming erratically and appeared to charge for water residents hadn’t used. One vacant property owner was charged for using 132,000 gallons of water in one month-that’s about how much a family of four uses in a year.

·         In May of 2015, a group of Pittsburg customers filed a class-action lawsuit against the utility, Veolia North America Water, and the accounting company keeping track of Pittsburg’s bills, alleging that new water meter readers installed by Veolia in 2013, catastrophically failed and customers have received grossly inaccurate and at times outrageously high tills-including increases of nearly 600 percent.

·         Veolia had also received a state citation for changing corrosion controls, and mounting debt, Pittsburg terminated its contract with Veolia.

·         In the end the city of Pittsburg had paid Veolia $11M over the course of the contract.

·         Pittsburg isn’t the first municipality to sue Veolia. Massachusetts officials sued Veolia, which was managing Plymouth’s sewage treatment facility, for allowing 10 million gallons of untreated sewage to spill in and around the town’s harbor

·         In many cases, critics point to a pattern of Veolia saving utilities money through quick fixes-while ignoring bigger problems, and then leaving with a big bag of money.

·         Other lawsuit examples related to Veolia and other US cities include the following.

·         Burlingame, CA - Veolia settled out of court when sued under the Clean Water Act for dumping more than 10 million gallons of wastewater and untreated sewage over a 5-year period into the San Francisco Bay.

·         Richmond, CA - Veolia and Richmond settled out of court when sued for dumping more than 17 million gallons of sewage into tributaries after initiating a capital improvement project.  Voters approved a $20M bond to pay for sewer repairs, which Richmond used to privatize its sewer over three years and then signed a 20 year, $70M contract with Veolia. Taxpayers had to shell out $500,000 annually to compensate for related property damage. In 2008, the plant had 22 spills of more than 2 million gallons of sewage.

·         Bridgeport, CN - Mayor convicted on 16 counts including taking kickbacks, bribes and extortion, along with 8 other defendants over a PSG contract proposal.

·         Danbury, CN - In a short-sighted attempt to balance its municipal budget, the city leased its sewers in exchange for a $10M up-front payment, at $22M overall expense.

·          Wilmington, DE - Failures to upgrade and repair, have resulted in years of sewage spills; environmental violations; state fines’ horrendously foul odors’ sewage overflow outlets which annually send over a billion gallons of contaminated wastewater into area waterways’ and contract disputes over a 55% water rate hike.

·         Burley, ID - In 2009, after cancelling its wastewater contract with Veolia, the city had to make thousands of dollars of repairs to its water treatment facility, violations and for overcharging 250,000 residents. Non-union employees have had pension, health care and benefits cut $50M over the 20-year contract. With the second worst drinking water in the country, a grand jury has subpoenaed four Veolia employees for allegations of falsifying water reports amid accusations by city and county officials that Veolia was skimping on staffing, water testing, maintenance and chemicals.

·         Tama, IA - In 2011, the city sought to end a 20-year contract with Veolia because it believed the city could save money with a public operation.

·         New Orleans, LA - Consideration of a bid containing uncertainties, inadequacies, and omissions cost the city $5M. Failure to take action on a known equipment problem resulted in an electrical fire. Raw sewage backed up into the East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant and was diverted into the Mississippi River for two hours. An executive was convicted of bribery in seeking wastewater contract extension and fined $3M.

·         Lee, MA - Lee rejected a bid that seemed to be a scheme to turn the city’s wastewater treatment facilities into a regional waste plant/Veolia profit stream.

·         Lynn, MA - The city was forced to end a weak contract that left it liable for expenses due to sewer overflows and flooding as a result of poor design or workmanship of system upgrades and an expired letter of credit. The city lost $22M.

·         Rockland, MA - A forensic audit led to a contract termination amid embezzlement charges involving a sewer department official and a local company executive, charged with embezzling more than $300,000.

·         West Carrollton, OH - An explosion at Veolia Environmental Service’s plant injured two workers, damaged over a dozen homes within a mile radius from the blast caused $50M in damage to the plant itself.

·         Meadville, PA-The Department of Environmental Protection fined Veolia ES Solid Waste of Pennsylvania Inc. $160,278 for violations related to vehicle licensing and failing to abide by the terms of its permit and more than $11,200 for residual and municipal waste violations amid complaints a Veolia truck driver draining an estimated 100 gallons of dilute coolant and rust preventative into a storm drain leading to the Driftwood Branch Sinnemahoning Creek.

·         Cameron and Centre Counties, PA - Veolia was fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for municipal and residual waste violations in Cameron and Centre Counties.

·         Woonsocket, RI - Years of serious sewage spills, violations and fines followed kept the city’s plant out of Clean Water Act compliance including seven informal enforcement actions and five formal actions and the plant’s manager had to attend a remedial training program, sponsored by the state.

·         Angleton, TX - Failure to maintain adequate staffing levels, submit capital project reports, and charging expenses improperly led to a contract termination and lawsuit for breached contract.

·         Houston, Texas – A federal investigation into financial transactions of high-profile consultants hired to lobby officials in unsuccessful bids. After a legal battle with Veolia’s competitor, the city expects to save 17%, or $2M public dollars for operations.

Someone made the comment at last week’s Heavener Utility Authority that it appeared that I was head hunting and out for Veolia.

I barely even knew about Veolia, but from what I’m reading about this French company, it’s worth taking the time to look at them and anything or anyone else associated with the poor water conditions in the city of Heavener!


Help the Heavener Ledger and grow and provide better coverage and subscribe to the Ledger here:

Like the Heavener Ledger on Facebook HERE or follow us on Twitter HERE.
Get our free daily email updates and never miss a story:

The Heavener Ledger

P.O. Box 38
Heavener, OK 74937