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Cathy Kunkel: Cleaning our water or cleaning their image?

By By Cathy Kunkel

West Virginia American Water has launched a major public relations campaign in the past couple weeks to improve its image and to try to restore public confidence in the company’s water. But has West Virginia American Water really learned the right lessons from the Jan. 9 spill?

The weekend after the Gazette published an article reporting on the Chemical Safety Board’s finding that the Freedom spill likely started before Jan. 9, West Virginia American Water took out a full page ad touting their water as “clean” and “safe.” They emphasized that they “comply with drinking water standards for about 100 regulated substances.”

Telling us that the water company complies with standards for regulated chemicals is missing the point. There are no Safe Drinking Water Act standards for MCHM, and many other industrial chemicals. That’s why a responsible water utility would need to know what potential contaminants are lurking upstream and have a way to monitor for the presence of those contaminants in the water upstream of its intake. West Virginia American Water, by contrast, knew nothing about MCHM until Jan. 9, and had no equipment to monitor for it or any other potential contaminants upstream of the intake. We are fortunate that MCHM smells like licorice, or the water might still be contaminated by it today.

As part of its new public relations campaign, the water company is hosting a “Water Fest” event at its water treatment plant on Saturday. This event will include the opportunity to “meet the team” at West Virginia American Water and to tour the treatment plant. This apparent level of transparency on the company’s own terms — contrasts sharply with their refusal to provide meaningful answers to many of the questions asked by Advocates for a Safe Water System, the WV Sustainable Business Council, and the Public Service Commission’s Consumer Advocate Division in the Public Service Commission’s ongoing investigation of the company’s response to the spill. The company has refused to answer requests as basic as, “[p]roduce all emergency preparedness plans developed for WVAWC before January 9, 2014.”

The testimony that the company provided to the Public Service Commission in early July made it clear how unprepared the company was for the spill. It was unaware of potential contaminants upstream of its intake and was not concerned with monitoring for them. And, despite having no workable alternative source of water in an emergency, the company had not planned for how it would address the contamination of its system. After the spill, West Virginia American Water had to develop new protocols on the fly for flushing its distribution system, lifting the “do not use” order and distributing bulk and bottled water.

So far, the company appears more concerned with polishing its image than with learning from these shortcomings.

Meanwhile, other utilities are learning lessons from the Charleston area’s water crisis. The Morgantown Utility Board has announced that it will be undertaking sourcewater protection efforts that will go above and beyond any regulatory requirements. And the Putnam Public Service District recently announced that it is investing $39,000 in additional upstream monitoring equipment.

The water crisis was a wake-up call that should not be ignored. The Public Service Commission has the opportunity, through its ongoing investigation, to order West Virginia American Water to make changes that will improve the water system’s ability to withstand a future chemical spill without contaminating the water supply for 16 percent of the state.

Cathy Kunkel is a member of the Advocates for a Safe Water System steering committee.

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