In letter, union wonders about water company's leaky pipes
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The union representing Huntington workers at West Virginia American Water Co. is worried that the company's leaky pipes may have allowed water contaminated by the Elk River chemical spill to seep into the ground.
D. Michael Langford, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, wrote to the state Public Service Commission on Thursday to point out West Virginia American's high rate of "unaccounted for water."
Unaccounted-for water is water that leaves a treatment plant, but never passes through a customer's meter, meaning it is never sold. It disappears somewhere in a maze of leaky pipes.
Langford points out that for the Kanawha Valley District, the company's unaccounted for rate over a 12-month rolling period was more than 37 percent, as of June 2013.
"Our immediate concern," Langford writes, "is that a significant amount of the contaminated water pumped through the system will have leaked into the ground. The UWUA does not know whether this presents a public health concern, but believes that the matter warrants investigation."
In 2012, West Virginia American could not account for more than 28 percent of the water it pumped, about 5 billion gallons, according to its most recent annual report on file with the PSC.
That number is far above the 15 percent that the PSC considers acceptable, and it is also above the statewide rate of unaccounted for water, which was about 25 percent in 2012.
West Virginia American serves 288 communities in 15 West Virginia Counties, according to its PSC filing. It has more than 3,300 miles of main water line.
West Virginia American is hardly alone in its noncompliance. An August Gazette-Mail investigation of 265 water utilities around the state that submitted annual reports with usable data found that nearly 65 percent of them were not in compliance with the PSC's standard.
In a letter dated Thursday to PSC Chairman Michael Albert, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre noted that Utility Workers Union of America does not represent the water company's Charleston workers. The union is a "frequent intervener" in proceedings of the commission to advance its own concerns, McIntyre wrote.
"It is unfortunate that another union would attempt to undermine the efforts of our employees by conveying misleading information and making unfounded claims in a letter to the Public Service Commission," he wrote in part.
"In addition, our present staffing levels are near our operational target. Likewise, the present emergency response efforts have no bearing on the quarterly operational reports that the company was directed to submit for the past two years, and which are due to end with the last report for the fourth quarter of 2013."
In August, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the company had to balance the cost of lost water with the cost of making repairs.
Langford's letter says that Local 537, whose members work in Huntington, has for several years testified about the need for infrastructure upgrades and increased staffing to maintain aging facilities.
"We urge the Commission and other agencies charged with investigating this situation and crafting going-forward recommendations to consider how best to address any deficiencies they find in American Water's physical and human infrastructure," Langford writes.
Langford also sent the letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and several other politicians and officials. Tomblin's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Staff writer Caitlin Cook contributed to this report. Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.