Now that Governor Tomblin has appointed a new commissioner to the Public Service Commission, the PSC is finally getting back to its general investigation into West Virginia American Water's response to the January 9th chemical spill. (Because Chairman Michael Albert has recused himself from the case due to his past ties to WV American Water and because the PSC cannot operate without at least two commissioners, the case was frozen for almost a year while the governor failed to make the appointment).
Since it's been so long since anything happened in this case, we want to remind you what's going on. The Public Service Commission launched this investigation in May 2014. The Commission has broad powers to investigate and to order changes to utility practices that it finds to be unreasonable or insufficient, as described by the following section of state code:
"Whenever, under the provisions of this chapter, the commission shall find any regulations, measurements, practices, acts or service to be unjust, unreasonable, insufficient or unjustly discriminatory, or otherwise in violation of any provisions of this chapter, or shall find that any service is inadequate, or that any service which is demanded cannot be reasonably obtained, the commission shall determine and declare, and by order fix reasonable measurement, regulations, acts, practices or services, to be furnished, imposed, observed and followed in the state in lieu of those found to be unjust, unreasonable, insufficient, or unjustly discriminatory, inadequate or otherwise in violation of this chapter, and shall make such other order respecting the same as shall be just and reasonable."
This case has produced detailed information on the public record regarding what went wrong with our water system on January 9th. Click here for a summary of what has been revealed by this investigation so far. Now that the Commission is able to work on this case again, there are several immediate issues that it needs to resolve before it sets a date for a hearing on the case. The major ones include:
- WV American Water has asked the PSC to remove parts of other parties' testimony from the case and not consider them as evidence. These pieces of testimony - including all of Consumer Advocate Division witness Evan Hansen's testimony - deal with the water company's actions (or lack of actions) to prepare for a possible chemical contamination. The water company continues to argue that the PSC should only look at the reasonableness of what it did on and after January 9th, regardless of how unprepared it was for a chemical spill.
- Other parties have asked the PSC to order the water company to produce the full versions of several confidential documents, including the water company's Emergency Preparedness Manual. After a hearing in August 2014, the PSC had ordered the company to produce those documents. The company provided a redacted version to the parties and provided the full versions only to the PSC itself, which we and other parties have argued is a violation of the PSC's order.
- The PSC had previously ordered WVAW to make public redacted versions of those same confidential documents and to "use a light hand" when redacting the documents. In December 2014, the PSC determined that WV American Water had not complied with this directive, that it had withheld too much information from the public. For example, the December order notes, “the 1-800 number for the Public Service Commission was inexplicably labeled as ‘Highly Sensitive Confidential Information.’” The PSC directed the water company to try again and re-file the documents with fewer redactions by January 16, 2015. The water company did so, but by January 16, 2015 the case was inactive and so the PSC has never determined whether the water company's second try was acceptable.
Once again, we see WV American Water trying to limit its accountability to the public and withholding as much information as possible.