The West Virginia Public Service Commission launched an investigation into a western Fayette County water district two days after the tiny utility issued an indefinite boil-water advisory for its entire system, affecting more than 600 people.
The probe follows a breakdown in talks to have West Virginia American Water Co. take over the Page-Kincaid Public Service District. The Public Service Commission received petitions July 1 with more than 400 signatures from people calling for an investigation into Page-Kincaid over poor water and high rates. Six months ago, Page-Kincaid officials pledged to negotiate with West Virginia American.
West Virginia American, earlier this year, proposed either selling water to Page-Kincaid or acquiring the utility’s water distribution assets but neither its water treatment plant nor sewer system. On Feb. 21, three weeks later, Page-Kincaid officials rejected both proposals, saying the smaller utility would only accept a deal to sell all its water and sewer assets to West Virginia American.
Page-Kincaid board member John David testified last year that the utility could not operate either its water or sewer system without income from both.
Page-Kincaid failed to provide information on sewage assets to West Virginia American, according to Public Service Commission filings. Charlotte Lane, the PSC’s chairwoman, said the agency is seeking to quickly improve water quality for users.
“The Page-Kincaid citizens deserve water that is good, safe and potable. We thought we were on our way to achieving that goal, then of course, things began breaking down,” Lane said. “We’ve gotten frustrated — as I’m sure the citizens have — and that’s why we [opened an investigation].”
David said Friday in an email that the utility issued the boil-water advisory after vandalism caused “several major leaks” throughout the system. A quick drop in water levels stirred up sediment and residue from the bottom of the wells.
Repairs were made promptly, David said, and “normal water” is back flowing through most of the service area. He described the advisory as a precaution that would be lifted after testing.
During a PSC hearing in October, residents who signed the petitions testified that water service had been unreliable for years.
In July 2018, water tests showed high traces of iron, manganese and aluminum. In some areas, outages lasted longer and became more frequent. That same year, Page-Kincaid reported an unaccounted water loss rate of 62 percent, one of the highest in the state. That means nearly three fourths of the water the utility treated never made it to a faucet. Water flowing into homes sometimes was “rusty” or “milky,” causing laundry to be dyed red, home appliances to be rusted out and people to experience rashes after bathing or headaches from its smell, according to complaints.
A Fayette County Commission lawsuit alleged the water was contaminated by area coal mining operations that cracked the casings of one of the system’s two underground deep wells. Engineers hired to investigate the claim could not substantiate it.
The influx of iron in the water caused one of Page-Kincaid’s three water filters to fail from processing so much metal.
Through negotiations with the state Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, Page-Kincaid acquired $248,000 initially slated for a separate rehabilitation project to purchase an emergency water filter. That went online in August. Board members at the time said their focus shifted to rehabilitating other parts of the system’s physical infrastructure.
In June, Page-Kincaid proposed a 10% rate increase for customers to help fund $3.3 rehabilitation of its water treatment plant. West Virginia American filed to intervene, saying Page-Kincaid should explore other options. Page-Kincaid eventually withdrew the request.
West Virginia American filed two pages of requests for information on Page-Kincaid’s sewage system but never received an answer. That “stands in curious contrast to the district’s insistence on the importance of the sewerage system being part of the transaction,” West Virginia American said, according to filings.
The Public Service Commission has ordered Page-Kincaid to turn over all the requested information to the state agency and West Virginia American Water by June 10.
A status hearing is scheduled for July 16 at Public Service Commission headquarters in Charleston.