HAMMOND, Ind. – One of the nation’s biggest private water companies, which is pursuing an aggressive anti-union campaign in trying to break the back of its Utility Workers local in St. Louis, is also in federal court in Hammond, Ind., on charges of water contamination at a local sewage plant, and an attempted cover-up of that.

United Water Company, through its subsidiary United Water Environmental Services, tried to get U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano to throw the case out.  Lozano refused, and ordered it to go forward.

United and its local officials at its Gary, Ind., plant “conspired to ‘tamper’ with the required E. coli monitoring method by changing the levels of chlorine administered before and after taking samples for E. coli bacteria, the judge said in his ruling.

The other counts of the indictment detail 25 separate instances of alleged tampering with chlorine in the plant just before federal monitors appeared.  The Clean Water Act requires the monitoring.  The firm broke the law by adjusting the chlorine injected into the water up to make the plant seem “clean” when inspectors were there, and then taking the chlorine level back down again after the inspectors left.

The indictment, disclosed by the Utility Workers, is important because the firm, owned by a French conglomerate, is also trying to break the union’s Local 355 in St. Louis.  It’s also allegedly broken labor law in relations with five other Utility Workers locals at its other plants.  One exception: Oct. 5 the firm signed a new contract with Utility Workers Local 375, covering workers at its plant in Jersey City, N.J.

“The Utility Workers believe United Water’s effort to discount the seriousness of the allegations contained in the indictment is deeply disturbing.  The indictment charges that United Water engaged in numerous environmental felonies over a five-year period.  If convicted, the two indicted managers could face decades in prison, and the company subjected to a significant fine, probation, or both,” the union said.

“We also believe United Water’s argument that the indictment contains ‘no allegation of environmental harm’ ignores the central reason federal law requires wastewater treatment plants to monitor pollutants. It seems obvious to us that the ability of public regulators to determine whether and to what extent discharges from a treatment facility represent any ‘environmental harm’ is seriously undermined if – as alleged in the indictment – the plant operator tampers with test results.”  A federal grant jury indicted the firm and its two local officials last December.

The union released copies of company internal e-mails showing supervisors knew of the “dosing” of chlorine at the Gary wastewater plant as far back as 2003.  One plant supervisor called the manipulation of the chlorine levels “a recipe for disaster.”

All this persuaded Judge Lozano to go ahead.  “An indictment is constitutionally sufficient if it states the elements of the crime charged, informs the defendant of the nature of the charge so he may prepare a defense, and enables the defendant to plead the judgment as a bar against future prosecutions for the same offense,” he wrote.

“An exhaustive recounting of the facts surrounding the crime is not required.  The words of the statute itself will suffice as long as those words expressly set forth all the elements necessary to constitute the offense…Dismissing an indictment is an extraordinary measure,” the judge pointed out in his Aug. 24 decision.

United’s common pattern appeared in St. Louis, where it is trying to both break Local 355 and get a big rate hike from the state for its Missouri subsidiary.

“Missouri American Water Company is seeking another rate increase of almost 18% this year after receiving increases totaling 47 percent over the past three years,” the St. Louis Labor Tribune reported on Oct. 15.  “This after earning $268 million in profit last year alone,” the profits for the larger, parent company.  The rate hike, if approved, would yield $115 million in new income to the firm, the paper added.  The union local has intervened in the rate case.

Missouri American Water, the firm’s St. Louis subsidiary, is trying to destroy the union contact, “and with it seniority, job protections and health care,” the paper noted. The firm’s specific proposals include a 52 percent hike in health insurance premiums, a tripling of the family deductible – to $6,000 – total company freedom for outsourcing, and elimination of seniority in calling back laid-off workers to fill vacancies.

Contaminating water and then covering up the violation isn’t the only alleged law- breaking by United Water.  The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel accused it of five instances of labor law-breaking against other Utility Workers locals in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania during the summer, and a sixth case in New York may be coming. 

The latest NLRB charge, in Bloomsburg, Pa., on Oct. 5, said the firm engaged in illegal “direct dealing” with workers over the head of the Utility Workers local there.

“The latest complaint confirms United Water’s disregard for the rights of its workers extends to the highest levels of top management,” declared union Vice President John Duffy.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.