WV PSC accepts water crisis settlement, closes investigation

Gazette-Mail file photo
Kanawha Valley residents fill water jugs from a tanker truck in Charleston weeks after their water was contaminated by a chemical spill in early 2014.

The state Public Service Commission has accepted a settlement from West Virginia American Water Co. and closed its years-long inquiry of the company’s role in the January 2014 water crisis in the Kanawha Valley.

The settlement, which aims to improve West Virginia American’s service to its hundreds of thousands of customers in the area, opens the door for the company to construct a potential secondary drinking water intake, according to the PSC’s final order on the case.

The company would conduct a study to evaluate alternatives, including a second intake, that would “enhance the resiliency of the [Kanawha Valley system],” the order said. The PSC would then review the company’s study to determine the necessity of each project.

The secondary intake would be located on the Kanawha River, backing up West Virginia American’s existing lone intake on the Elk River.

The Elk River supply was contaminated by a spill of Crude MCHM and other chemicals from the Freedom Industries facility about a mile and a half upstream of the intake. Area residents and businesses were given a “do not use” order for their water for up to a week.

West Virginia American is pursuing the development of the second intake, even with the settlement not specifically requiring it, according to company spokeswoman Laura Martin.

The settlement said the company “may construct these projects if they fall within the ordinary course of business” and then recovery of project costs could be placed onto ratepayers through a rate application or a distribution-system improvement charge. Both require PSC approval.

However, the PSC said that aspect of the settlement required additional clarification because of “the magnitude, potential operational significance and potential rate impact of these types of projects, as well as the implication of existing Commission and statutory processes.”

The PSC clarified in its order that West Virginia American projects considered routine business require a company notice to the commission no later than 60 days before construction starts. Non-routine projects would still need commission review and approval to incur development costs, the order added.

The settlement also requires the company to:

n “Regularly update” its Kanawha Valley source-water protection planning and submit an annual report noting “potential sources of significant contamination.”

n Connect new storage tanks in Amandaville that could be sent to the Charleston area during emergencies. Martin said these tanks will hold 8 million gallons of treated water and will be completed by the end of the year.

n Develop a contingency plan that factors in potential water supply source contamination, along with an incident reporting system and “significant improvements” in the company’s monitoring system.

n Implement procedures to keep more water on hand during cold weather, when demand is typically higher.

West Virginia American added that it will undergo a three-year pilot study and install additional monitoring at two locations 30 minutes and 60 minutes upstream from the intake “if it is able to obtain necessary approvals.” The company would then file the study’s results and its recommendation on continued upstream river monitoring with the PSC.

The settlement was reached in January and supported by the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division, independent staff and a group of area businesses.

Advocates for a Safe Water System, a local group that formed after the crisis, didn’t support the settlement, but it didn’t oppose it, either. In a statement made earlier this year, the group said the PSC’s investigation “did not go far enough” to help the public understand the lessons learned from the crisis and that public transparency in the process was lacking.

The PSC originally opened its investigation to determine if West Virginia American’s actions during the crisis were unreasonable or inadequate under state law.

The PSC settlement is separate from the $151 million federal court settlement. That settlement covers roughly 224,000 people and 8,000 businesses. More details on the settlement, along with who and what it covers, are available at www.wvgazettemail.com/news -cops-and-courts/20170427 /what-you-need-to-know-about -the-water-crisis-settlement.

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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