Faced with a “significant number” of complaints from area residents, the West Virginia Public Service Commission on Wednesday announced that it will investigate West Virginia American Water Co.’s handling of the contamination of the water supply for 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region.
Commissioners ordered a “general investigation” of the matter and instructed the water company to provide detailed information, including timelines of its response to the Jan. 9 chemical leak at Freedom Industries — including its decision not to close its Elk River intake and any potential alternative water supplies it considered after the MCHM leak.
“The issue before the commission is relatively simple — at the time of and under the circumstances that existed with the spill, did the actions of WVAWC in reacting to the spill and the presence of MCHM in its raw water or finished water supply constitute unreasonable or inadequate practices, acts, or services,” the PSC said in a 20-page order.
Under state law, the PSC has broad authority to order utilities to remedy such problems, and some residents in their complaints asked the commission to mandate the water company take steps to avoid any repeats of what happened in January.
“It sounds like the PSC has recognized the importance of these issues,” said Paul Sheridan, a Charleston resident and lawyer who is among those who filed formal PSC complaints against West Virginia American Water. “It seems like a very positive step.”
Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, said the company will cooperate with the PSC’s investigation.
“Our decisions in response to the spill were made in collaboration with various agencies and with the health and safety of our customers as our number one priority,” Jordan said in an email. “We are proud of the outstanding work performed by the West Virginia American Water and the interagency response team to restore full water service to our customers.”
The PSC order listed 26 individuals or families who have formal cases pending against West Virginia American Water, alleging a variety of problems related to the spill and its aftermath. The order also said the commission had received “a significant number of informal and formal complaints” from water company customers.
Commissioners described the complaints as “wide-ranging” and alleging “a number of unreasonable or faulty practices by WVAWC or others.” The PSC said the complaints generally focus on the difficulties created by the inability of customers to use the water supplied by WVAWC during the ‘do not use’ period.” Many complaints request full or partial relief from paying for the water contaminated by the spill during the “do not use” period and, in some instances, beyond, the PSC said.
In its order, the PSC instructed West Virginia American Water to provide testimony to the commission that includes the following:
n A chronological description of the “pertinent actions” taken by water company personnel “beginning when any employee of WVAWC, its parent company, or service company became aware of the spill” through March 31.
n A chronological listing of the measurements of MCHM taken by the water company and the locations where those measurements were obtained, through March 31, as well as “updated measurements” once the company has completed replacement of the filters at the Elk River treatment and distribution plant.
n A narrative describing “the process and factors used to decide whether to close the intake structure.” This testimony must include “which, if any, outside agencies were consulted or otherwise had a role in making the decision, the factors contemplated in making the decision, and who ultimately made the decision regarding the continued intake of raw water from the Elk River.”
n A detailed description of “the involvement of all agencies or entities external to WVAWC that were consulted or otherwise involved in developing or implementing protocols used by WVAWC from the first indication of the spill” through March 31.
n A description of “alternatives for water treatment or alternative or supplemental sources of treated or finished water that were considered by WVAWC after it became aware of the MCHM spill.”
Commissioners said they would put on hold all citizen complaints related to the spill, but they cautioned residents that they must continue to pay any water bills incurred during the “do not use” until those cases are resolved.
The PSC set several deadlines for the case, including June 25 for any parties to intervene, July 2 for prepared direct testimony from the water company to be filed, Aug. 20 for direct testimony of commission staff and intervenors, and Sept. 24 for response testimony. Commissioners scheduled a formal hearing on the case for Oct. 7-9 at the PSC building in Charleston.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.