‘WaterFest’ generates goodwill, but concerns linger
When one event has cost you more than $10 million — with the possibility of millions more to come — it can’t hurt to spend a couple thousand dollars to generate some goodwill.
So West Virginia American Water gave out rubber duckies, tote bags and water bottles, and offered inflatable castles, water balloons and a backhoe as it opened up its Charleston treatment plant Saturday for a “WaterFest.”
It’s been 30 years since the company last opened its treatment plant to the public, West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre said, and in the wake of January’s water crisis, now was a good time to do it.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of interest and questions,” McIntyre said, “and we thought that if people could come in and see for themselves and meet the team that treats their water, they’ll know much more. And that’s a good thing.”
West Virginia American faces more than 50 lawsuits filed after the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical leak into the Elk River, near the water company’s only intake for its Charleston treatment plant. The leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM got into West Virginia American’s system and contaminated the tap water for 300,000 people. American Water Works, West Virginia American’s parent company, said in its most recent filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission that the crisis cost it $10.9 million in the first six months of 2014, although the company still turned a healthy profit.
The West Virginia Public Service Commission is investigating the company’s response to the water crisis and the company’s lawyers are tussling with the commission about the scope of that investigation and what documents the company will have to make public.
Saturday struck a different note, though, as the plant was open for tours, the grounds were filled with games and company employees volunteered their time to teach people about filters, gauges and pipes.
Seven months to the day after the chemical leak, Shirley Coles drove over to the Court Street plant from her home in Kanawha City. Even with no trace of MCHM detectable in the water system, plus the assurances of the water company and a panoply of government agencies, Coles said she still isn’t drinking tap water.
“I don’t know — I don’t trust it,” Coles said. “I thought, well, go down and take a tour of the plant and see all of this stuff. And it’s very impressive. It looks like they’re trying to do what they should do.”
Travis Lynn, an engineer at Columbia Gas, lives in Knollwood, just outside the Charleston city limits. He was at the plant, eating popcorn with his 4-year-old son, Jasper. He appreciated the gesture by West Virginia American.
“It’s a lot, for them to open their doors,” Lynn said. “Just understanding the process; [it’s] always better to get a little understanding.”
Marcie Myers is a senior cross-connection specialist for West Virginia American. She had brochures and gauges and all the information anyone could want on how to prevent backflow in their plumbing.
Hers was not the most popular booth at WaterFest.
“No one wants to stop here,” Myers said. “They’re not interested in how to save their mom and dad money, I guess.”
At the neighboring booth was Brett Morgan, the plant’s director of engineering. He had several samples of 70-year-old iron pipe that recently had been replaced. But he wasn’t getting many takers to learn about the relative merits of PVC pipe versus cement-lined ductile iron pipe.
“We haven’t had a kid stop yet, except to get stickers,” Morgan said.
Both booths were overshadowed by one run by the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, which had no relation to water, but offered free fingerprinting for kids.
Katelyn Godbey, 9, was at WaterFest with her mother and sister.
She used a fire truck and hose to extinguish a fake fire and she fixed a leaky demonstration pipe with a stainless-steel full-circle clamp. Her favorite part of the festival, though, were the four inflatable jungle gyms — “the bouncy thingies.”
“I think it’s great that they’re doing it,” said Crystal Godbey, Katelyn’s mother. “It’s good for the community to come out and see how it all works.”
No one seemed to disagree, but some were a little more hesitant.
Volunteers with Advocates for a Safe Water System, a group that formed after the water crisis began, were outside the treatment plant with a five-question survey, asking about people’s concerns with the water system.
“We don’t begrudge anyone a fun day in the sun and learning about the water utility,” said Karan Ireland, who was conducting the survey. “We hope that they are spending as much time, money, energy dealing with issues like secondary intake or more raw-water storage or better monitoring.”
Among the free trinkets given out at WaterFest was a small ruler with cut-out circles in it, showing how much water is lost by different size holes in a pipe. “Water costs money . . . don’t waste it!” the ruler urged.
No one’s exactly sure how many holes and of what size were in Tank 396 at Freedom Industries, which leaked more than 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk.
The ruler said a 1/8-inch hole will leak 296,000 gallons of water over a three-month period. That doesn’t say anything about Tank 396 — about how big the holes were or how long it was leaking — but the connection was hard to miss.