Customers speak out against American Water rate increase

Dozens of people packed a hearing room at the Public Service Commission offices in Charleston, while others waited in a neighboring office, to speak about West Virginia American Water’s proposed 28 percent water rate increase.

As the fully-staffed three member commission looked on, residents from Charleston and the surrounding region took turns voicing their concerns about the $35 million increase, along with their personal issues with the state’s largest water utility.

Some residents spoke about water main breaks that affected their service. Many voiced distaste for the company’s handling of the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water for more than 300,000 people. Most criticized the company for underinvestment in old water main replacements. And more than a few called for a public takeover of American Water’s system.

“West Virginia American Water is a monopoly,” said Martha Ballman, an American Water customer, as she took her turn at the podium. “There is no consumer choice.”

The meeting was the last of nine public meetings held throughout American Water’s service territory over the past month. Customers took part in similar public meetings in Huntington, Fayetteville and Princeton, but none of those meetings had the turnout of people that attended Monday’s meeting.

Part of that crowd was the result of organization by Advocates for a Safe Water System, a group that formed after the 2014 chemical leak and has openly called for a public takeover of the American Water system.

Garry Turnes of Dunbar, who had filed complaint with the PSC against the company previously, just wanted answers for why he and his neighbors lose their water several times a year. He wanted to know what American Water’s past rate increases went toward if not to the replacement of old water mains.

“It’s every year,” Turnes said. “Every winter we have two or three breaks.”

In documents filed with the PSC, data suggests it would take the American Water 384 years to replace all of the mains in its system. And according to PSC staff testimony, American Water had 3,752 leaks or breaks in 2014, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

Additionally, statistics provided by American Water show that nearly 26 percent of the water treated by company never makes it to customers’ taps.

“I just want dependable service that is drinkable,” Turnes said, as he addressed the commissioners.

In response, Commission Chairman Mike Albert told Turnes that American Water’s line breaks and missing water would be discussed in the case, which will be the subject of an evidentiary hearing Tuesday morning.

“That is an issue in the rate case, and we will be looking at that,” Albert said.

Several of the people who took to the podium to speak recounted the way the 2014 chemical leak affected their lives and told the commission that they still kept jugs of water in their homes as a result American Water’s recent service history.

Commercial customers also took the meeting as a chance to air their issues.

Laura Ross, the owner of a laundromat in Barboursville, said her water bills were already around $2,000 a month, and that she couldn’t afford a double digit increase.

“My business is solely based on water,” Ross said. “It’s very frustrating for me. They are a monopoly. I don’t have an option of getting a better deal.”

As a counter to American Water’s $35 million request, PSC staff have suggested an increase for the company of $12.1 million, and proposed the company receive approval for a separate annual surcharge that would be dedicated to main replacements. The Consumer Advocate Division alternatively proposed a $1.8 million increase.

Katey Lauer told commissioners that she would be opened minded to request for a small increase by the company, but she would expect some concession from the company, too.

“I would be willing to pay for a small rate hike if American Water would change their business practices,” Lauer said, adding that she wasn’t confident the company would acquiesce.

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814, or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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