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Residents urge thorough PSC probe of water crisis

KEN WARD JR. | Gazette-Mail
Members of the group Advocates for a Safe Water System held a rally outside the state Public Service Commission building in Charleston prior to Tuesday night’s water crisis public hearing.
KEN WARD JR. | Gazette-Mail
West Virginia American Water Company employees attended Tuesday’s PSC public hearing, but did not offer public comments during the event.

Kanawha Valley residents turned out Tuesday evening to urge the state Public Service Commission to be especially thorough in the agency’s probe of West Virginia American Water Company’s involvement in the regional water crisis that followed the January 2014 chemical spill on the Elk River.

Encouraged by the group Advocates for a Safe Water System, residents said they hoped the PSC would not give in to persistent water company requests to narrow the scope of the PSC investigation. Residents said they wanted commissioners to closely examine how well West Virginia American Water prepared for such an event and how water company officials responded once they leak occurred.

“I just beg you to remember in this investigation how we all felt during this crisis,” said Charleston resident and attorney D.L. Hamilton.

Linda Frame, another local resident, told commissioners how she struggled to explain the water crisis to her children, while the family had to buy bottled water, couldn’t shower, and noticed the water still smelled like licorice, even after they flushed their home plumbing system. It was hard for residents to understand what was happening, Frame said, because the water company and government officials provided shifting and unclear answers about the crisis.

“To me it felt like they were winging it,” Frame said. “I’m asking you to do a thorough investigation so we can have some reason to believe this will never happen again.”

Some residents described the situation now as no better than it was three years ago, despite the elimination of the Freedom Industries chemical tanks just upstream from the water company intake on the Elk, and even though state lawmakers passed new safety regulations that apply to thousands of similar tanks and to all public water systems around the state.

Others, though, said their main concern remains that not all information about the spill and the water crisis has been aired publicly, especially in the wake of a global settlement of class-action and most other lawsuits pending against West Virginia American and Eastman Chemical, the company that made MCHM, the main chemical spilled by Freedom.

“What our members want to see is the public’s right to know protected,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

More than 65 people turned out for the evening hearing, the second of two public comment sessions the PSC held Tuesday. No one came to speak at an earlier session, held at 1:30 p.m., in the middle of a workday. The PSC scheduled the sessions as part of its water crisis investigation, which continues with formal evidentiary hearings starting next week.

About two dozen West Virginia American Water employees, most of them wearing blue polo shirts with the company logo, filled the first two rows in the PSC hearing room. None of them took a turn speaking at the hearing. All 17 people who spoke urged the PSC to do a detailed investigation.

Outside, the Advocates for a Safe Water System group held a brief rally in the PSC parking lot prior to the hearing. As evening came and the sun went down, organizers held a large banner that said, “PSC: Don’t leave us in the dark!”

“We want to know everything that led up to this and everything we can to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Karan Ireland, a Charleston City Council member and one of the leaders of the Advocates group.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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