Dampening Debate | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It's called World Environment Day. But critics say speakers at host city Pittsburgh's key WED event over-represent one small part of the world -- the corporate part often implicated in abuses of environmental and human rights.

The June 3 "Water Matters!" Global Water Conference is intended as the serious, issues-oriented face of WED, a United Nations-inspired program whose highlights include an attempt to set a record for kayaks and canoes on the river.

Water is a political issue as well as an environmental one: Fresh water is increasingly scarce globally, and getting scarcer as population grows and industrialization increases. One debate is whether access to water is a human right -- requiring governments to ensure such access -- or simply another commodity, like oil.

At Water Matters, two of the three panels are weighted toward corporate interests. The Water & Energy panel, for instance, features representatives of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, which builds and runs coal-fired power plants, and Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co., which serves the nuclear industry. A third panelist is a climate scientist.

The three-member panel titled "Water as an Economic Driver," meanwhile, includes the CEO of the country's largest investor-owned water and wastewater utility company; the head of a Milwaukee-based meter manufacturer; and a representative of Coca-Cola.

David Dzombak, the Carnegie Mellon professor who helped organize the conference, contends he included "a range of perspectives." But neither of these two panels includes representatives of environmental organizations or other grassroots groups who might provide countervailing voices to companies with a direct cash interest in water.

"We would have pretty deep concerns that World Environment Day is becoming a platform ... that is more about the message these corporations want to get out," says Anil Naidoo, of Canadian advocacy group The Blue Planet Project.


A business-oriented approach to these issues was, well, almost like something conference organizers put in the water. Pittsburgh is the North American host city for the 37th World Environment Day thanks to Robinson-based pharmaceutical giant Bayer Corp., which lobbied the UN for the honor. Bayer is also part of WED Pittsburgh's leadership group, along with fellow multinationals like Alcoa, and foundations including the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

WED programming is overseen by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a chamber-of-commerce-style group.

To coordinate the WED, the Allegheny Conference recruited Sustainable Pittsburgh, a nonprofit advocacy group. Water-conference speakers were chosen by a committee guided by Sustainable Pittsburgh executive director Court Gould and Dzombak, a CMU professor of civil and environmental engineering. Both men volunteered their services. (Incidentally, as is customary, the UN itself was scarcely involved with organizing Pittsburgh events, Gould says.) 

Sustainable Pittsburgh promotes finding ways "to integrate economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality." The mission echoes the "triple bottom-line" approach -- also called "people, planet, profit" -- widely touted by advocates as a way to make business practices more environmentally friendly, and vice versa.

The conference's two top sponsors are Bayer and Lanxness, a Pittsburgh-based maker of plastics and chemicals. Other sponsors include Westinghouse, Alcoa and Calgon Carbon Corp., which makes air- and water-purification and pollution-control systems.

The conference committee included a variety of groups, including the environmental organization Clean Water Action. Organizing talks were heavily business-themed. Gould says planning began by acknowledging Southwestern Pennsylvania's role as an energy-producing region, with such attributes as its wealth of natural gas. Our abundant water, meanwhile, provides a competitive advantage over, say, the arid American Southwest. Given the energy industry's need for water, Gould adds, "Water may well be the biggest predictor of this region's future growth and prosperity." 

Dzombak says the committee's key question was: "How can we leverage our activities and investments to build water technology and innovation as an economic linchpin for our region?"

Asked whether conference sponsors affected programming, co-organizer Gould says, "There was never even a hint of trying to influence who would be on and who wouldn't be on" the panels. Pressed about the lack of environmentalist voices, Gould says, "I can understand that perspective." But Gould and Dzombak say they are counting on panel moderators to ask tough questions and provide missing perspectives. The "Economic Driver" moderator, for instance, is well-regarded Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin.


Hearing from big corporate water-users is justifiable, of course. Nor are environmentalist and grassroots voices entirely absent from the conference. Keynote speaker Carl Safina, for instance, is a lauded marine conservationist and author. The Water & Your Health panel includes nationally known drinking-water safety expert Marc Edwards and Peggy Shepard, of Harlem, N.Y.-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Still, on the remaining two panels, five of the six speakers represent corporations. Roberta Bowman, of Duke Energy, and Westinghouse's Kate Jackson speak for industries that use water heavily.

The day's final panel -- "Water as an Economic Driver" -- raises additional questions. Starting with its title. "To me, the alarm bells go off," says Richard Girard, research coordinator for Canada-based research and advocacy group the Polaris Institute. "Water as an economic driver for what? For your profit?"

One speaker, American Water CEO Donald L. Correll, runs a $2.4 billion company whose subsidiaries operate in some 35 states; its Pennsylvania American Water, for instance, services nearly 20 Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and numerous suburbs.

Water privatization remains controversial, with debates about the wisdom of running a basic service for profit, and charges that private firms target cash-strapped communities seeking quick fixes. Cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lexington, Ky., meanwhile, have protested large rate hikes by American Water subsidiaries. Citizen groups in Trenton, N.J., are fighting a proposed sale of its water lines to New Jersey American Water.

American Water's press release on the WED conference says that Correll "will discuss the critical need for water and wastewater infrastructure investment in the U.S. and how these projects help create jobs and stimulate the economy."

Coca-Cola is represented by Gregory J. Koch, of the $8.2 billion firm's Global Water Stewardship Program. But bottling plants have been blamed for water shortages in communities overseas, especially in India. 

"Coca-Cola is the last company that has the authority to be speaking about water conservation," says Amit Srivastava, who coordinates the Berkeley, Calif.-based India Resource Center.

Coke operates about 50 bottling plants in India, about one-third of which, Srivatava says, moved into water-stressed areas and made things worse. One plant, in the town of Plachimada, was shut down by the state government in 2004 after years of complaints about dropping groundwater levels. In March, the government asked Coke to pay $47 million in damages caused by water depletion and polluted runoff.

Coca-Cola has denied any wrongdoing in India, and in some 70 countries has begun water initiatives -- projects to help communities harvest rainwater and the like. It also says it has reduced its water use.

But Polaris' Girard lumps such initiatives with Coke's support for the UN's "CEO Water Mandate," whose 70-some signatories include Bayer: The companies promise to conserve water, though the document itself says the commitment "is voluntary and aspirational."

"This is all about the greenwashing side of things," says Girard.

Meanwhile, Clean Water Action's Western Pennsylvania director, who helped plan "Water Matters," professes satisfaction with panels that all but exclude fellow activists. "The fact that they're raising the issue of water ... is really important," says Tom Hoffman.

And organizer Dzombak, for one, believes issues like Coke's record in India will be raised regardless. "I think you'll find that Greg Koch won't dodge those issues," says Dzombak. "People will judge [for] themselves."

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