By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday blasted a water plant operator for "endangering the lives of Bahamians" by cutting off supply to central Eleuthera residents due to a dispute with the Water & Sewerage Corporation.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works who has responsibility for the Corporation, slammed Aqua Design Bahamas for "the nastiest, most callous conduct I've ever seen" in deciding to cease water production at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Branding the company, a subsidiary of SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions, as "greedy" for its actions despite being paid $1.7m of the debt owed to it by the Water & Sewerage Corporation, Mr Bannister said it had made "tens of millions of dollars off the Bahamian people" through "one-sided" contracts in its favour that were signed off by former administrations.
He pledged that the Government will "do whatever we have to do", revealing that it was taking legal advice after the Water & Sewerage Corporation was forced on Thursday night to obtain an emergency Supreme Court injunction forcing Aqua Design to resume supply after the payments proved insufficient incentive.
However, Aqua Design and its parent last night revealed in a statement to Tribune Business that they plan to challenge the injunction obtained by the Water & Sewerage Corporation on the basis that "inaccurate statements" had been made to the Supreme Court to obtain it.
Acknowledging that the timing of its actions was "unfortunate", as hundreds of Eleuthera residents - some for a week or more - did not have water for bathing, washing, cooking and good hygiene amid COVID-19's continued spread, Aqua Design blamed the Water & Sewerage Corporation's delinquency in paying debts due to the company for leaving it with no choice but to act as it did.
"Water & Sewerage Corporation contracts with Aqua Design Bahamas, SUEZ’s legal entity in The Bahamas, that provides desalinated water in several locations. Water & Sewerage Corporation has consistently, and for many years, been delinquent in paying for the service provided," Aqua Design said.
"With regard to Central Eleuthera, there have been multiple attempts to work diligently with Water & Sewerage Corporation to avoid having to cease production at the plant and resolve the matter. However, they have generally been non-responsive. We have sent multiple communications over the course of several months, but it was only after the plant was shut down that Water & Sewerage Corporation acted."
Aqua Design added: "Rest assured we did not make the decision lightly. By not paying their bills, Water & Sewerage Corporation has risked water supply for the people of Eleuthera, and their non-payment has now brought this to a head at an unfortunate time.
"On October 23, we were ordered to restart production as part of an injunction made by Water & Sewerage Corporation. We complied with that order, but, given a number of inaccurate statements, we will be challenging the order."
Aqua Design's pledge of a court challenge is unlikely to go down well with residents of Governor's Harbour, Palmetto Point, James Cistern, Savannah Sound, Windermere Island and other settlements affected by last week's cut-off.
Rather than a finger-pointing blame game between the Water & Sewerage Corporation and Aqua Design, which has effectively made them pawns or held to ransom over a payment dispute that does not directly involve them, all those communities will likely want is a consistent supply of water for their homes and businesses.
Still, Mr Bannister spared no effort in lashing out at Aqua Design, blasting: "They have cut the water off in Eleuthera at the height of the pandemic. There was no excuse for what they did. It is something the Bahamian people will never accept, and we will do whatever we have to do.
"They have endangered the lives of Bahamians. Money cannot bring back lives. They have endangered lives. It has been callous. If they are owed money, that's fine, but you cannot bring back lives with money. It's the nastiest, most callous thing that I have ever seen. In the middle of a pandemic, to turn off the water in Eleuthera.
"You can use someone as a pawn, as a hostage, but when you deny them water... water is life saving. Everybody needs to exist. It's entirely unacceptable. They've crossed the line with what they've done to the Bahamian people. We will not accept that type of conduct in The Bahamas. I'm very angered by what they have done in Eleuthera. They don't care. They were callous about human life."
Tribune Business sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Water & Sewerage Corporation had made a $1m payment on the debt owed to Aqua Design the week before last. A further $700,000 was said to have been paid last week in response to the supplier's demands, but it ultimately took the Supreme Court to order that the water be turned back on.
Mr Bannister confirmed that this newspaper's figures were "pretty much correct", although neither side has confirmed the total sum owed to Aqua Design. Besides the 500,000 imperial gallons per day supplied to central Eleuthera by its Rock Sound plant, the company operates three other reverse osmosis plants on the island, effectively giving it a monopoly lock on production on the island.
"The Corporation has made some payments," Mr Bannister added. "I think you can appreciate, based on what you know, that the Corporation has not had the kind of assets to make all the payments it would like to make. The Corporation has made such payments as it can."
Adrian Gibson, the Long Island MP who is the Water & Sewerage Corporation's executive chairman, will give a statement on the central Eleuthera situation when the House of Assembly meets today. He previously told this newspaper that it owed some $30.8m to vendors and suppliers, a portion of which will have been due to Aqua Design, at end-August 2020.
Aqua Design has around eight to nine contracts to supply the Water & Sewerage Corporation throughout The Bahamas, including on San Salvador as well as Eleuthera. "As far as I'm concerned they've made tens and tens of millions of dollars off the Bahamian people," Mr Bannister told Tribune Business. "I hate to say this, but they have a sweetheart deal that's not in the interests of the Corporation.
"Whatever the situation was they could have waited, but they are greedy, and we have to deal with greedy people. I believe the contracts they signed were one-sided in their favour. They are not contracts any thinking government would have signed. These are contracts that were obviously signed under an administration other than this one. No thinking government would have signed those contracts."
Mr Bannister thus placed the blame on the former Christie, and possibly Ingraham, administrations before revealing that relations between the Water & Sewerage Corporation and Aqua Design had been souring for some time as the latter's reverse osmosis contracts come to an end.
Such deals, which saw the Water & Sewerage Corporation outsource water production to private operators on multiple islands, typically give multiple options when they expire. The parties can renew, or the operator sells the plant at its equipment to the Water & Sewerage Corporation at an agreed price, with a third option being that it simply takes its equipment with it.
Suggesting that Aqua Design was seeking to "disengage" because its time will soon be up, Mr Bannister said: "I'll tell you how petty they are. I'm told by the Corporation they want to be paid for the wells they have dug in Eleuthera.
"You could be compensated for chattel if you own a building that cannot be moved, but they want to be compensated for the wells dug in the ground. That's how petty they are, completely petty. That type of thing won't be tolerated in The Bahamas."
While water supply in central Eleuthera has been turned back on, water supply to some customer has taken a while to be restored due to the delays involved in restoring pressure to the system.