At issue in a convoluted dispute over which documents the state Public Service Commission should receive from West Virginia-American Water Company is this essential question: What kind of investigation of the water company’s response to the January chemical spill will West Virginians get?
West Virginia-American Water essentially argues that history started on Jan. 9, the day area residents smelled something in their water that turned out to be a harsh coal washing chemical called MCHM. Any documents that the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division may want from before that date are not relevant to the PSC’s investigation and should not be shared, the water company has argued.
The PSC should ignore that stall and get on with a proper evaluation. The Consumer Advocate Division rightly wants to understand what sort of planning the water company did before the leak that deprived 300,000 people of their water, sent people to emergency rooms with irritated skin and eyes and closed businesses and schools for days.
Before the leak, to the extent anyone thought of the topic at all, area residents vaguely assumed that the water company, which makes its living purifying and delivering the public’s water, would take every precaution to keep that supply safe.
People have since suspected that their confidence was misplaced. Something about having to buy or carry all of one’s drinking and bathing water for five days — or longer — and to have lingering doubts about it for months, has made people unwilling to just take anyone’s word for it.
The people have a Public Service Commission for a reason, and a Consumer Advocate Division for this exact purpose — to act on the people’s behalf. The number of calls and complaints from the public prompted this inquiry. The water company’s protest probably has more to do with embarrassing details, including what, if anything, the water company did in reaction to an April 2002 Water Assessment Report on options to “evaluate and manage” potential contamination sources on the Elk River, including the Freedom Industries site.
Water is a necessity, not a luxury. This inquiry should be serious and thorough. People have learned that they must take a more diligent role in protecting their water. They’re taking it.