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Outrage Files: Private Water Company Squeezes Elderly N.J. Woman for Every Last Drop

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The notion of a profit-driven multinational corporation controlling the supply of water to our homes (yes, the water we as humans rely on daily to drink, bathe and live) seems odd to many. Perhaps as odd as the notion of a corporation controlling (and charging us for) the sunshine we enjoy, or air we breathe. But with so much to worry about these days, it often takes an extreme case to remind us all just how absurd the privatization of water is. The recent case of 91-year old Camden, NJ resident Eleanor Sochanski and her $2,167.02 water bill should do the trick.

Actually, there have been many examples recently of privatized water delivery gone amok. There was the matter of Toni Ray, of Carmel Valley, Ca., and her unexplained $9,800 monthly water bill from California-American Water last September. After a fight, Cal-Am agreed to reduce Ms. Ray's bill to $2,300 out of "goodwill" but did nothing to explain the drastic increase over her typical $40 monthly usage.

And there was the matter of Joe Pezzano, of Middletown, NJ, whose water was completely shut off by New Jersey American Water Co. last month over an apparent overdue balance of $0.84. New Jersey American eventually blamed a computer error on the water disconnection.

And there are a whole handful of similarly absurd behaviors by private water companies that we documented earlier this year.

Which brings us to the latest disgrace - and potential home-loss tragedy - involving Ms. Sochanski. As reported by the Courier-Post on Sunday, the elderly Camden resident, accustomed to $50 or $60 quarterly water bills from United Water, received a bill for $2,167.02 earlier this year. She hadn't filled up an Olympic-sized swimming pool; according to her water bill, the water she used could have done so. In fact, nothing in her life had changed. No water leaks in her home were found, and her bill the next quarter was back to normal. United Water insisted that the insane charge was accurate, but couldn't explain why.

But that wasn't the half of it. As a result of the unpaid water bill, a lien against Ms. Sochanski's home was sold in June. Ms. Sochanski was facing homelessness, and United Water wasn't talking.

Mistakes happen. But for United Water - a division of the France-based corporate entity Suez Environnement - to continuously deny requests for comment or explanation from both the customer and the press, was unconscionable. Private companies like United Water don't have to tell the public anything about issues like this, as they are shockingly exempt from many public disclosure laws that local government utilities must abide by.

Even the city of Camden - which itself recently settled a lawsuit with United Water over billing and performance issues, like the fact that the system was losing 45 percent of its water - couldn't help Ms. Sochanski. For corporations like United Water, profit, not customer service - or even fairness - is the bottom line.

After an international outpouring of outrage and sympathy for Ms. Sochanski following the publishing of her story, an agreement was apparently made to resolve the lien on her home. But questions remain unanswered by United Water, and her now-increased $2,312 bill apparently still stands.

State legislatures in New Jersey and elsewhere must tackle the issue of negligence and overcharging by private water companies and get to the bottom of cases like Ms. Sochanski's and about 1,000 other homeowners in Camden who are currently facing property liens. In the meantime, the plight of Eleanor Sochanski and her water bill will surely not be the last in the saga of disastrous water privatization in America.

This was originally posted at Food & Water Watch's blog.

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