By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
The reverse osmosis plant operator that cut-off central Eleuthera's water supply has been paid $4m this year to cover debts owed by the Water & Sewerage Corporation, it was disclosed yesterday.
Adrian Gibson, the state-owned water utility's executive chairman, told the House of Assembly that Aqua Design Bahamas had threatened to disrupt water supply on the Family Islands where it operates "on at least five occasions" before taking last week's action on Eleuthera.
He revealed that the company, a subsidiary of SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions, had previously written a letter warning that it would cut-off supply on San Salvador and Inagua, as well as Eleuthera, because the Water & Sewerage Corporation had failed to pay the sums due to it.
Echoing Desmond Bannister, minister of works, the Water & Sewerage Corporation's executive chairman slammed Aqua Design's actions as "cold and callous", and "beyond the pale".
"We were stunned when one of our reverse osmosis operators, of foreign origin, deliberately and egregiously shut off the water supply to the people of central Eleuthera. Such is especially condemnatory. It is beyond cold and callous; it is simply inhumane, and a flagrant and barbaric atrocity against the people of The Bahamas, and most especially the people of central Eleuthera," Mr Gibson blasted.
Based on the 2010 population census that was obtained by Tribune Business, some 2,363 persons out of Eleuthera's 11,515-strong population were unable to bathe, cook, wash their hands and adhere to good hygiene practices for at least several days while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
"This company has a history of conducting themselves in a manner that can harm the Bahamian people," Mr Gibson added of Aqua Design. "On at least five occasions the company’s general manager has callously threatened to disrupt the water supply to the Bahamian public.
“Let me say that any threat to disconnect any island of this country would be beyond the pale. Unfortunately, the threat to disconnect the people of Central Eleuthera - which was also sent to the Office of the Prime Minister - also contained a threat to intentionally disrupt the water supply to the people of Exuma. What’s more, the water production levels in South Eleuthera have also been intentionally reduced during this pandemic, this coming in May of this year- notwithstanding written and oral agreements to maintain supply levels."
The Water & Sewerage Corporation was forced last Thursday night to obtain an emergency Supreme Court injunction forcing Aqua Design to resume supply, after a recent $1.7m payment on its debt - made in two tranches - proved insufficient incentive for it to cut the water back on.
However, Aqua Design and its parent 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.
WSC had obtained an injunction to get the company to begin producing water again, however the company, Aqua Design along with its parent SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions, said that they will challenge the injunction claiming that inaccurate statements were made by the WSC to obtain it from the supreme court.
Acknowledging that the timing of its actions was "unfortunate", 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 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.
"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."
In response, Mr Gibson said yesterday: “I instructed that, last Thursday night, Water & Sewerage Corporation lawyers appeared before Supreme Court justice Indra Charles and successfully obtained an interlocutory injunction.
"An Order was filed and served, and water was restored to the people of central Eleuthera on Friday past. That order compelled the immediate reinstatement of production and supply of water to the central Eleuthera settlement, and we urge that there should be no demobilisation process or further interference.
"They [Aqua Design] are talking about setting aside an injunction that allows people to get water based on legal technicalities rather than apologising to the people of Eleuthera. They’re not saying that they have any merit; they’re saying that they are going to apply to set aside on a minor technical point," Mr Gibson continued.
“Let me say that any threat to disconnect any island of this country would be beyond the pale. We have had similar threats in south Eleuthera, and are being told that in order to increase water output we would have to sign a two-year contract extension for an increased guaranteed amount and pay more money. It was never contemplated that a guaranteed amount under a contract would fluctuate in accordance with a state of arrears.”
Mr Gibson said there was a contractual provision in the Water & Sewerage Corporation's agreement with Aqua Design that deal with any accumulation of arrears owed by the former.
Arguing that there was no justification for the cut-off, as the Corporation has been making inroads into the arrears, he added: "We have made 12 payments this year. One was made in September for $1m, and another being a week ago of $700,000. Those payments this year amount to roughly $4m.
“Deals that gave contracts for terms of 15 years to 20 years, just like we see here now, called upon Water & Sewerage Corporation to provide the land, called upon Water & Sewerage Corporation to pay for the electricity for the water production, and saw Water & Sewerage Corporation grant Customs concessions to these entities.
"That saw Water & Sewerage Corporation pay for all consumables and even drill wells. That demanded Water & Sewerage Corporation pay every time they start their generators. That was one fee, just the cranking of the generator, and then they paid separately for fuel plus a mark-up of 15 percent, so the generator was one fee and the fuel was another fee, plus a mark-up of 15 percent on the fuel. A number of other ridiculous, grossly skewed clauses, were seen.”
Mr Gibson said that the majority of these “skewed contracts” were signed under the first Christie administration between 2004 and 2005.