Two Towamencin residents will sue township over pending sewer sale

In May, Towamencin residents passed a law, the Home Rule Charter, that forbids the privatization of their sewer system. But township officials intend to proceed with a sale.

Kofi Osei and Jenn Foster hold a flag together.

Kofi Osei and Jenn Foster are the two plaintiffs in the upcoming lawsuit against Towamencin Township. (Jeremy Albright)

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Towamencin voters passed a new local law in May forbidding township officials from selling the public sewer system.

Two residents are now planning to sue the township for not complying with the law and proceeding with a potential sale.

The plaintiffs, Kofi Osei and Jenn Foster, lead organizers with Towamencin Neighbors Opposing Privatization Efforts (NOPE), have pushed against the sale since 2021, and helped write  a Home Rule Charter. The new law forbids the sale of the township’s wastewater, stormwater, and water to private entities.

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Osei and Foster announced in the NOPE Facebook page Wednesday night: “We have urged both our Board of Supervisors and PA American to invoke the termination language in the Asset Purchase Agreement to no avail. We believe that the decision to continue with the regulatory process is in direct violation of the law.”

Tow residents look at a sign that reads Home Rule Charter.
Residents passed a new local law in the May primary election, called a Home Rule Charter, that prohibits the sale of the township’s stormwater, wastewater, and water systems to private companies. (Jeremy Albright)

Foster said the lawsuit will probably be filed in the coming weeks. The plaintiffs will also request an injunction to put a pause on the process.

A Pennsylvania American Water spokesperson told WHYY News on Thursday that they intend to continue with the purchase from Towamencin.

“We plan to uphold that commitment,” said Kara C. Rahn, senior manager of government and external affairs.

Rahn said the public will benefit from the sale because of the company’s ability to finance capital improvement projects. “We also have the ability to address the environmental compliance challenges of the system,” she said.

Pennsylvania American Water has filed an application with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for the transaction’s approval.

None of the township supervisors who support the sewer sale responded to WHYY News’ multiple requests for comment.

The Board of Supervisors said in a May 25 statement that they plan to proceed with the sewer system sale for $104 million.

“The Township legal team does not believe the passage of the Home Rule Charter negates the sewer sale under current Pennsylvania law and the Pennsylvania Constitution. There is strong legal precedent against overturning pre-existing contracts based on the passage of new laws,” the Board of Supervisors said.

Supervisor Joyce Snyder, the only supervisor against the sale, said she supports the residents in their efforts and is confident that “the Constitution of Pennsylvania is going to trump” the contract with Pennsylvania American Water. She said she is “baffled” that the other supervisors have not backed away yet, and that Pennsylvania American Water may move forward with a “hostile takeover” of the sewer system.

“There have been so many places along this process where it would have been face saving and would have been the popular decision to say, ‘Hey, we changed our minds,’ and [the supervisors] haven’t done that,” Snyder said.

Foster said she is also surprised that officials have not changed direction, after years of pushback from residents. 

“It’s mind blowing. I have yet to run into a person that can explain to me why they feel that these supervisors are digging in as hard as they are, that through a lot of dissent — between town halls and board meetings and two elections now — they still are so dead set on selling the sewer,” Foster said. “It’s really concerning.”

Towamencin residents gathered on July 1, posing for a photo
Towamencin residents gathered on July 1 to celebrate the adoption of a new local law that forbids the sale of their public sewer system to private entities. (Jeremy Albright)

Foster said the board could have walked away after NextEra backed out of the sale in March. But the supervisors voted 4-1 to pass the contract to Pennsylvania American Water instead.

“To that end, any legal action rests squarely on the shoulders of Supervisors Wilson, Marino, Smith, and Warner,’ Foster and Osei said in a public statement on Wednesday night.

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The Office of Consumer Advocate filed a protest against the sale to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission on June 2. It asks the PUC to only approve the sale if “it provides substantial, affirmative benefits to the public,” and “is in accordance with the Public Utility Code and applicable Commission rules and regulations.”

OCA said in that letter that it does not currently have a stance on whether the Home Rule Charter should terminate the sale, but that it “casts significant uncertainty” about the sale and the legal dispute should be resolved first before moving forward in the process.

The Food & Water Watch, a national nonprofit that fights for universal access to clean water, said Towamencin residents are trailblazing a path for citizens to maintain public ownership of water utilities.

“Their victory will provide a strong model for communities across the state to stop corporate takeovers of local water and wastewater systems,” said Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director, in a statement to WHYY News.

She said large water corporations, like Pennsylvania American Water, are “aggressively targeting” Pennsylvania’s public water and sewer providers for acquisition,” driven by a slew of state laws that have aided the ability to privatize and raise rates. “NOPE is demonstrating how community organizing is a powerful countervailing force to Big Water.”

Foster and Osei posted a GoFundMe to raise legal funds for the law firm they signed with, Rudolph and Clarke. Since sharing it in their NOPE Facebook page on Thursday, the group has raised over $3,000, mostly in small donations. Foster said asking for money from the community, again, was a difficult decision.

“This community has been very generous because it’s a fight that they believe in,” Foster said. “We know that people are struggling … And they’ve been incredibly gracious and have stepped up yet again.”

Many residents fear rising sewer rates if the sale proceeds. Pennsylvania American Water raised rates for customers by 14% this year, and initially proposed a 24% rate hike. The company says its yearly average rates are $1,272, and Towamencin’s current annual sewer rate is $450. Osei estimated that rates will be $1,550 a year in Towamencin if the system is sold, based on average water usage statistics from the North Penn Water Authority.

In the grand scheme, this fight is about public leaders making big, generational decisions without the influence of the people they serve, Foster says.

“We’re thinking about what our rate is going to be in year ten. Because it’s only going to keep going up,” Foster said. “People may move out of the township, people will pass away, but there’ll be future generations that want to live here and thrive here. And they’re not going to be able to do that with sewer bills that are $2,000 a year.”

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