NEW YORK – Activist lawyers have filed a lawsuit with the federal bankruptcy court aimed at stopping water shutoffs in the city, but the Detroit Water and Sewage Department insists a two-week pause in water shutoffs was a plan the department implemented voluntarily – not a response to legal pressure or threats of United Nations intervention.
“This is a pause, not a moratorium,” Bill Johnson, a DWSD spokesman, told WND in an interview. “After 15 days, we will resume the shutoffs.”
During the shutoff, Johnson explained DWSD will try to identify and assist any water customers not paying their bills because of genuine financial hardship.
“We are pausing our collection effort voluntarily to allow for any of our customers who have a demonstrated financial hardship to come into one of our offices to see if we can get them in a payment program or some financial assistance,” Johnson said.
The Detroit News reported Monday that a group of Detroit residents has filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. bankruptcy court, claiming a shutdown of water services to about 30,000 low-income households violates their constitutional rights.
“Under the Detroit City Charter, Detroit residents have a right to expect city government to provide for its residents safe drinking water and a sanitary, environmentally sound city,” lawyers filing the legal complaint told the Detroit News.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to end DWSD water shutoffs for nonpayment of water bills while asking the bankruptcy court to demand DWSD implement a “water affordability” program with income-based payments for low-income households.
After the class-action lawsuit was filed, Veronica Joice of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund claimed the water shutoffs were racially motivated.
“The water shutoffs are being done in a discriminatory manner,” Joice said, according to CBS News Detroit. “And they should at least take a look at whether there’s a better way to do this that doesn’t affect the most vulnerable citizens – the majority of whom are African-American here in Detroit.”
On June 30, WND reported the United Nations had planned to conduct confidential policy discussions with Obama administration to be followed by the U.N. Human Rights Council applying to an international judge. Activists in Detroit had presented the U.N. with a formal complaint alleging Detroit water shutoffs violated a U.N.-established human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
In response to a WND inquiry, Madoka Saji, a human rights officer in the Special Procedures Branch of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, explained in an email Monday that the U.N. plans to intervene directly in the Detroit crisis.
She explained procedures established by the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights mandate that the special rapporteur on safe water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, intervene directly with the U.S. government. The first intervention is to confidential, followed by a public intervention, if necessary, after de Albuquerque has an opportunity to file a report on the communications with the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
‘Water, not a right that should be free’
Johnson acknowledged activists in Detroit had petitioned the U.N. to intervene, but he was adamant that the DWSD decision to call for a two-week moratorium on shutoffs had nothing to do with political pressure from Detroit activists or from the U.N.
“First and foremost, there is no one here at the Detroit Water and Sewage Department who is engaged in violating the human rights of anyone,” he insisted.
“We do subscribe to any notion that water is a right that should be free,” Johnson said. “We think we provide the best drinking water in the world, but water in Detroit is not free. We cannot afford to provide quality water free.”
Johnson acknowledged the DWSD has a concern that water should be affordable.
“What we have found through our research, our failure to conduct an aggressive collection over a number of years has increased the cost of water for everyone in Detroit,” he pointed out.
“In the case of Detroit, this year a new budget took effect in which the people of Detroit received an 8.7 percent increase in their water bills. This was caused to some extent by the need to rollover bad debt from unpaid water bills into the increase for all Detroit customers. That means that people who pay their water bills on a regular basis have to compensate for people who don’t. We think that’s wrong.”
He explained that he worked with a number of DWSD officials over the weekend to design the moratorium announced Monday. He offered to provide first-hand evidence that pressure from activists or the U.N. had no influence on the decision.
“I worked on this with a number of other DWSD people over the weekend, and in no way was the pause a response to any lawsuits or any other form of outside pressure,” he said. “The moratorium was a result of our own concern we may have missed some people who truly can’t pay their bills, and we want to give them an opportunity to come in to see if we can help them out.”
Johnson explained that before announcing the 15-day moratorium publicly, DWSD officials presented their plan to pause water shutoffs to U.S. federal bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes.
“Judge Rhodes approved of our plan to pause shutoffs,” Johnson explained, “but he did not insist on a moratorium, and the plan was proposed on our own initiative, not in response to any request or a demand of the bankruptcy court.”
A habit of non-payment
He pointed out that DWSD research shows the collection problem has less to do with financial need than with a pattern of neglecting water bills.
“This year in our renewed collection efforts, we have found that people had allowed their water bills to lapse,” Johnson pointed out.
“We find the issue has more to do with people who have come to regard as ‘not important’ their obligation to pay their water bills as a high priority and less to do with people who can’t afford to pay,” he said. “When we cut the water service off, our preliminary studies show that in 24 hours approximately 60 percent of those with uncollected debt have come in and paid their water bill in full.”
Within 48 hours, some 40 percent of the remaining customers delinquent on their bills come in and pay in full, he said.
Johnson emphasized it was the first time DWSD implemented a real enforcement strategy, and he repeated the DWSD conclusion the problem is not with people who can’t pay, it’s with people who don’t treat paying their water bills as a high priority.
He explained that people in Detroit lose their water service if they are more than 60 days behind in their payment and owe a total of $150 or more.
The average DWSD overdue water bill is currently $540.
“During the shutoff pause, we will direct our DWSD crews to investigate any customers who have turned their water back on illegally, after being shutoff for non-payment. If we find illegal usage, we will turn these customers off again.”
Johnson concluded the interview by repeating the purpose of the 15-day shutoff moratorium was to identify and provide solutions for customers not paying their water bills because of legitimate financial difficulties.
“We are inviting customers in the next two weeks to come and talk to us and see if we can get you some financial help,” he emphasized.
“We have maintained and continue to maintain that no customer that has come to us with a legitimate and demonstrated financial hardship has been denied service. The few cases a person in genuine financial hardship had their water service terminated, we have restored the service once the customer comes in and demonstrates a financial hardship.”
The Associated Press reported DWSD shut off service to approximately 7,200 homes and businesses in June, compared to 1,570 in the same month last year.
The AP further reported water service has been restored in Detroit to 43 percent of the shutoff customers after the customers paid past due bills.
On June 25, the London Guardian reported that with 150,000 DWSD customers late on their bills, owing as little as $150 for two months unpaid – a number that has increased 119 percent in the last decade – Detroit’s staged mass shutoff of as many as 3,000 households per month could eventually impact somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 residents, nearly half of Detroit’s mostly poor and black population.
U.S. resists U.N. on water rights
The U.S. has consistently opposed the U.N. push to define clean water as a fundamental human right.
In 2007, the United States government submitted a detailed explanation of its views to the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
In it, the U.S. recognized the importance of water rights while rejecting the view that a “right to water” exists under current formulations of international human rights law.
The 2007 U.S. rebuttal to the U.N. argued:
Understanding how the United States addresses these issues [equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation] requires an understanding of the U.S. system of federalism, under which, state and local authorities play the primary role in promoting access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Over time, the U.S. Congress and the courts have increased the involvement of the federal government in certain areas. Today there are a wide range of federal laws and regulations aimed at promoting safe drinking water and sanitation. However, state sovereignty over many water issues remains.
On Nov. 21, 2013, the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee [Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural] approved 11 draft resolutions, including a text on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation that called on all U.N. member states, including the United States, “to ensure the progressive realization of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation for all in a non-discriminatory manner, while eliminating inequalities in access.”
Delia M. Arias De Léon, a Wellesley College political science student currently serving as a WND intern at the U.N. in New York City, contributed to this article.