A potential contract between the St. Louis Water Division and Veolia Water, a water treatment and service company, has become a battleground issue for Palestinian human rights activists.
The St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (STL-PSC) has called for a campaign to “Dump Veolia,” due to its involvement in alleged “systematic ethnic discrimination against Palestinians” in Israel.
In November, the city revealed that Veolia Water had been approved by a selection committee for a $250,000 four-month consulting contract with the St. Louis Water Division to recommend ways to reduce costs and redundancies. The city would then have the choice about whether or not to adopt these measures. If its recommendations were indeed adopted, Veolia would receive a percentage of the overall savings, estimated at $8 to $15 million dollars, The Riverfront Times reported.
The contract was thought to be a done deal by December 19, when the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A) was to approve it.
The St. Louis E&A is comprised of St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay, Comptroller Darlene Green and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed, himself running for mayor against Slay in an April 2013 election.
But approval has since been put on hold after the STL-PLC asked the Board to take a closer look into the company’s social justice record.
STL-PSC argues that three of Veolia’s Israeli projects violate Palestinian human rights and contribute to “Israeli apartheid.” The organization points to Veolia Environmental Services-Israel, which consults on and operates the Tovla landfill in the Jordan Valley, as “collecting refuse from illegal settlements.”
Another Israeli subsidiary of Veolia Transdev, Connex-Israel operates buses through the West Bank on road 443, through what the organization considers “confiscated land with portions closed entirely to Palestinians,” STL-PSC’s website states.
Finally, the STL-PSC opposes Veolia Transport’s involvement in the development of the Jerusalem Light Rail Transit system, conceived in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
A organization along with a coalition of the Missouri Commission on Environment, and other members of the St. Louis Community mounted a social media campaign and grassroots effort under the banner “Dump Veolia” to stop the contract going forward,
The Paris-based Veolia operates in over 77 countries, and has several subsidiary companies in Israel. It has long been the focus of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, along with companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Revlon and Victoria’s Secret.
STL-PSC’s website lays out seven reasons why Veolia should be disqualified from doing business in the city of St. Louis. Most of these objections are environmental or mismanagement-based, but Sandra Tamari, a member of STL-PSC and one of the organizers of the “Dump Veolia” coalition campaign, said that the organization’s primary concern is Veolia’s involvement in Israel.
“Our mission is very clear. We support BDS campaigns. That’s what brings us to the Veolia issue,” she said.
Tamari argues that these social justice issues are absolutely relevant to the situation in St. Louis. “They have a direct impact on everyone in the United States and everyone who cares about ending wars in the Middle East,” she said.
Tamari also points out that the Palestinian support group played a pivotal role in bringing attention to the contract. “The city would not have known about this contract without STL-PSC. We are the ones who educated the coalition,” she said.
The contract with Veolia is also controversial because of a number of environmental and management concerns brought forward by the St. Louis community. Kathleen Logan Smith, Executive Director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE), also involved in the Dump Veolia campaign, explained that Veolia’s record in managing contracts across the country should be reason enough to dismiss them as a potential business partner. “I’d be happy if Veolia was banned from doing business in this city,” she said. Logan cited a Veolia contract with Indianapolis’s water supply as the most recent in what she said is a “history of cutting corners.”
But even if her primary concern is Veolia’s alleged record of economic, environmental and management problems, Logan defended her association with STL-PLC in the “Dump Veolia” campaign. “Whenever people want to get something done, you tend to ally yourself with people who are there for different reasons,” she said. “If you don’t make room for people who share the same goal, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Logan added that she hoped that those who disagreed with STL-PSC’s allegations would see past them when it comes to Veolia’s other issues. “I think it would be unwise for people to think that support for a lousy company is equivalent to a good political stance,” she said.
In a letter to Mayor Slay on January 3, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council opposed the STL-PSC’s claims of human rights violations in Israel, and stressed that an E&A board meeting was not the proper venue to discuss such complex and emotionally charged issues.
“We reject the approach of those who seek instead to inflame the conflict and act it out here in the United States. We reject the approach of those who model divisiveness in our community with tactics such as divestment and boycott. This approach to what is a complex conflict is unjust and ultimately detrimental to peace in the Middle East and to good relations in St. Louis,” the letter stated.
Batya Abramson-Goldstein, Executive Director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, stressed that the Jewish community would not take a stance on whether or not the contract was approved.
But, as Abramson-Goldstein pointed out, the community is vehemently opposed to any decision being made on the basis of objections regarding the situation in the Middle East. “The decision on this contract should be done only on the basis of the relevant fact, and the Middle East conflict should not be brought to St. Louis,” she said.
On January16, Comptroller Darlene Green released a statement explaining that no decision should be made before a public forum is held to discuss the intent of the contract, and address the concerns and outstanding allegations about Veolia. The statement made no mention of the company’s activities overseas, but focused on the concerns about Veolia’s track record with regards to contracts in other cities in the United States. “The allegations made against Veolia are serious enough that they deserve to be heard in a public forum,” Green wrote. “Veolia deserves to be heard in a public forum as well.”
Matt Demo, Communications Director for Veolia Water in North America, said the company wasn’t concerned about the opposition to the contract and is confident that they will be approved in a future vote. “It’s the right decision for the city,” he said.
The next Board of Estimates and Apportionment meeting is to be held on February 20.
Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.