CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials want answers about water bills residents say were too high to have been accurate following last month's chemical leak.County Commission President Kent Carper sent a letter to the state Public Service Commission asking about the bills, tabulated during the water emergency following the Jan. 9 chemical leak that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 state residents.Carper said county officials have gotten several complaints from residents saying they can't possibly have used as much water as West Virginia American Water's billing department said they did during the month-long crisis."Apparently there are a lot of them," Carper said. "We got one [Friday] from someone who turned their water completely off and got a $300 bill."Many West Virginia American Water customers were surprised after they got their first water bill following the chemical spill, when water customers were told not to drink, bathe or cook with their tap water. Many residents were surprised to see bills that were the same or more than the previous month, even though they were only using water to flush their toilets or weren't using the water at all.Carper sent a letter to the Public Service Commission on Feb. 12 asking about the apparent discrepancies."The Kanawha County Commission has been approached by citizens asking for help in regards to their recent water bill from West Virginia American Water," Carper wrote.
"These citizens came to the commission office with their December and January water bill; they were exactly the same," Carper told the PSC. "Both stated 'actual reading' and show the same amount of water usage for both months."Their question to me was: 'How is this possible? We could not use the water in January except to flush the toilet,' and I must say I have to agree with them." Carper asked PSC officials to investigate the billings.When Kanawha County residents first began to question the water bills, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the water bills would have included the water people used to flush their water lines. She also said January water usage might have been higher than usual because many people left water dripping during an extreme cold spell to keep their pipes from freezing.
But Jordan said the water bills were based on actual readings from customers' water meters, and should have reflected the amount of water they actually used.But in an article posted Feb. 19, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre told Newsweek that may not be the case.McIntyre told Newsweek reporter Joe Kloc that at least one disputed bill Kloc was given was likely "an estimate based on a historical pattern of consumption." McIntyre told Kloc the water company uses estimates when the company can't get to water meters because of cold weather or "other environmental factors."Once the water company can get to the meter for a real reading, customers' bills should be corrected, Kloc was told.But that explanation doesn't sit well with Carper, who said customers are being told on their bills that they are being charged based on actual meter readings.
"I just don't think it's right," he said. "People don't understand it, and they deserve to be told the truth about their bills."Jordan acknowledged Friday that some Kanawha County water customers did get estimated bills."We normally read 98 percent of all meters every month," she said. But the weather was so bad in January that crews were able to get to only 86 percent of the water meters in the county, leaving the other 14 percent of customers with estimates.Jordan said any mistakes on the estimated bills will be corrected the next time water company crews are able to take an actual meter reading.Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org