The Public Service Commission recently issued an order expressing concern that some of the issues that have been brought up in their investigation of the water company's response to the Jan 9, 2014 Freedom spill would be better addressed by the Bureau for Public Health under Senate Bill 373 (the bill that the legislature passed in response to the spill). Many have interpreted this as an indication that the PSC is looking for an excuse to drop the investigation.
Two years ago, ratepayers pushed hard for this investigation because we knew that the Public Service Commission is the only agency with broad powers to investigate what went wrong. And despite the water company's continued push for secrecy, what has been uncovered so far has given us the most detailed information on the public record about the water company's flawed response to the spill.
The water crisis was the perfect example of what can happen when regulators are not paying attention or when they assume something is another agency's responsibility. For example, apparently no one, neither at the PSC nor the Bureau of Public Health, noticed when WV American Water removed its chemical testing laboratory from the treatment plant ten years ago to cut costs - even though both agencies have some jurisdiction over ensuring that water utilities deliver safe water.
The water crisis highlighted the cracks in our regulatory system and the dangers of under-enforcing existing regulations. The PSC could use its general investigation as an opportunity to work more closely with the Bureau for Public Health to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks. But for the PSC to abandon its investigation based on the assumption that all of the problems will be addressed by the Bureau for Public Health would be just more of the same attitudes that led to the crisis.
Although WV American Water has repeatedly demonstrated that it wants to keep as much information out of the public record as possible, there is no reason for the PSC to be complicit in this endeavor. But without the PSC's investigation, the public may never get complete answers about why our water system failed on January 9th. (Though much information is presumably being uncovered in the class action lawsuits, none of it is public - and if those lawsuits settle, that information will never see the light of day).
Even if it turns out that some of the problems revealed by the water crisis are sufficiently addressed by SB 373, we will never know for sure unless we can have a thorough investigation into what actually happened - and the PSC is the only place we have a chance of getting one.