(A big thank you to our comrade Jim L for this campaign summary)
Water rights are human rights. This fact has been the guiding principle of organizing efforts in Norristown Municipality, the largest high-density city in the inner ring of the Philadelphia suburbs, where democratic socialists in BuxMont DSA, a branch of Philly DSA, and local organizers joined under the banner of NOPE (Norristown Opposed to Privatization Efforts) to prevent Aqua America from buying Norristown’s public sewer system this past year. The Philadelphia suburbs are, in many ways, the frontline of some of Pennsylvania’s most nefarious neoliberal privatization schemes. In Delaware County, Aqua America has also attempted to buy the local water system with intense oppositional pressure from locals.
Norristown is unique in the region for its diversity and historical character, but also for its concentration of poverty and economic struggle. The town has suffered from white flight, a drained tax base, and the collapse of its retail sector (it’s within 5 miles of both King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting malls). This makes the town and its municipal council perfect targets for national shareholder-owned companies to make off with its assets. The drinking water system, the trash system, and other smaller utilities and goods have already been sold to private companies. The sewer treatment plant is one of the few properties Norristown holds in public trust.
The municipal council, who as recently as last summer passed a ceremonial endorsement of Medicare for All, a campaign led by BuxMont DSA, quickly rallied around the sale. The two dissenters on council were bitterly attacked for being divisive and diversionary. The majority on council sold the sale as a way to provide much needed funds to a slurry of proposals, none with concrete explanations. The reason to transfer the system seemed to be hollow, unnecessary, and burdensome to the municipality. In reality, the facts were clear that this would simply be a short term, high interest loan for Norristonians. All data, and Aqua’s admission, pointed towards increases in the sewer fee, which would put extreme pressure on Norristown’s poor and working-class residents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. None of this dissuaded Norristown’s council from passing a myriad of resolutions advancing the sale, and even disbarring the publicly overseen Sewer Authority from even speaking on the matter. NOPE and BuxMont DSA with other progressive allies built an ideologically diverse coalition to reverse the previous ordinances. Norristown’s petition-ballot system requires 1,261 signatures to trigger, which would, after various bureaucratic steps, push the decision of the sewer sale to a general vote during the upcoming 2021 primaries.
NOPE attempted to gather the requisite signatures on many occasions, slowly building more and more support across the municipality. Signs went up on many of the yards and porches of the town opposing the sale. On Election Day, November 3rd, NOPE finished collecting signatures, with 2,130 collected for the two petitions to reverse the sewer sale ordinances. This victory is far from the end, but NOPE and BuxMont DSA intend to finish the fight and stop this unfair and hostile deal from proceeding further. Water rights, including safe waste water management, are not up for sale.