Amid crisis, protesters say no to water bills
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Since West Virginia American Water Company is going to continue billing customers in the wake of the contaminated tap water from the Elk River chemical leak, some residents have decided that they're going to bill the water company right back.
At a protest in Charleston Saturday morning, affected residents filled out invoices, estimating what the water crisis has cost them. Then they stuffed the bills in envelopes with a piece of black licorice -- a nod to the smell of the chemical-tainted water -- to be delivered to the water company.
The blank invoices contain spaces for money spent on bottled water, gas to go buy bottled water, replacing home water filters, hand sanitizer and disposable plates and utensils, among other things.
There are also spaces to estimate the cost of lost wages and profits from when businesses closed, child care services when kids were not in school, sewage bills from flushing pipes and tax dollars spent on responding to the emergency.
Brooke Drake, of Charleston, estimated that the water crisis has cost her $290, mostly in gas and hours lost picking up bottled water.
Kate Grubb just wrote down an even $100, "for flushing away piece of mind," which she said was priceless.
About 140 people gathered at First Baptist Church in downtown Charleston and then marched the half mile down Smith Street to West Virginia American's facility on Rand Street.
The protest was led and organized by a disparate array of groups: the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, both environmental organizations, but also the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several local churches.
Paul Sheridan isn't involved with any specific group, but he spoke at the protest, urging citizens to call both the water company and the state Public Service Commission to file complaints about the water.
The water company must keep a record of all complaints it receives and present it to the PSC when the commission reviews the company's rates.
On Saturday morning, in the crowded First Baptist sanctuary, Sheridan called the water company on speaker phone as an example of how to file a complaint.
After pressing 4 to "report a water emergency or a concern about the quality of your water" and then pressing 2 for a call "concerning the quality of your water," Sheridan was connected to an operator.
He said he was calling to complain about his bill and his water. He was asked for the name of the account holder, his phone number and the account number.
"Part of my bill is for the period when we were directed not to use the water," Sheridan told the operator after the formalities. "My objection is to paying for any service since the water has been poisoned."
The operator told him that on his next bill he would receive a credit for $10.29, the equivalent of 1,000 gallons, for the water used to flush out home pipes.
Sheridan said that he didn't want just the pipe-flushing credit.
"I don't want to pay for any water or any service after the 9th until I can be provided with a credible assurance that the water is safe," Sheridan said. "So I would ask that you please record that complaint."
"If you're still having a water quality issue, I can definitely put that in the system for you, that's not a problem," the operator said. "As for seeing if you're going to be relieved of any actual charges after that billing cycle, I can't guarantee that. That's going to be your option if you choose not to pay your charges."
At a legislative hearing on Thursday evening, Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, was asked if the company would be billing for the period since the water was contaminated.
"Have you ever gone to a restaurant and gotten a bad meal and complained about it?" Delegate Larry Faircloth asked McIntyre. "They don't give you a credit, you typically don't have to pay for it. Do you really believe it's fair to bill your customers?"
McIntyre said that the water crisis was the fault of Freedom Industries, the company that leaked the chemical. He said that since West Virginia American had to continue providing water, and the water was in compliance with all regulations, that the company would continue to bill customers.
Laura Jordan, a West Virginia American Water spokeswoman, confirmed on Saturday that the company will continue to bill as normal. She said customers will see the flushing credit on bills that arrive between now and the second week of March.
In an email statement McIntyre said that they were "evaluating the availability of federal and state assistance to address customer concerns.
"We do have a process in place to receive information from customers who want to inform us of losses resulting from the Freedom Industries' chemical spill," McIntyre wrote. "Our customer service center has been taking contact information from these customers."
At the protest Saturday, Sheridan pointed to PSC rules that say water must by "pure, wholesome, potable," and that the company must furnish "safe, adequate and continuous service."
Sheridan contended that the lingering smell in the water and the "do not use" orders issued after the leak violated those rules. He urged others to follow his example and file complaints.
"It's the numbers that will make the difference," he said. "If we stand together, that's how we get heard. An individual complaint is going to do very little."
Christine Lee, who lives on the West Side of Charleston, was at the protest with her three sons, 7-year-old twins and a 9-year-old.
She said she would be filing complaints. She said she shouldn't have to pay her water bill until she got, "clean water and some truth. A nice little combo. Put it on the rocks."
Michael Pushkin, a local musician, performed at the protest, although he said he was tired of writing songs about industrial disasters in West Virginia.
"We got hills and pills and chemical spills," Pushkin sang, "but we ain't going to pay our water bills."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.