Op-ed: PSC should not drop general investigation of water crisis response

As published in the January 24, 2016 Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Days after crude MCHM leaked into the Elk River, 150 people gathered in the hallway of the Roosevelt Community Center, spurred into action by the lack of good information they were getting from government agencies. People complained of adverse affects as a result of flushing their homes — hot water first — at the direction of West Virginia American Water as the company began to lift its Do Not Use Order, zone by zone. They wanted to know why the water they were being told was “appropriate for use” was still causing headaches and rashes. At this and other community meetings following the spill, the most frequently asked questions was, “How could this have happened?”

Two years later people are still waiting for a complete answer to this basic question.

Part of the answer to that question is that citizens are at risk when agencies charged with protecting public health operate in silos. The water crisis highlighted all too vividly what can happen when regulators are not paying attention or assuming that someone else is tending to their responsibility. Advocates for a Safe Water System rightly concluded that one critical component of a truly safe water system is inter-agency cooperation and assistance. Without some continuity and overlap there are inevitably holes in the system.

After SB 373 was passed in 2014, looking for an answer to the same question, legislators called upon the Public Service Commission to begin a general investigation into West Virginia American Water Company’s response to the leak. They recognized that the Public Service Commission is the only agency with broad investigatory powers to fully explore what went wrong to allow a chemical spill to contaminate the drinking water for 300,000 people.

The general investigation began as a process to get some of the answers to the question: “How could this have happened?” It was a process that allowed for some citizen participation. It was a process that began to uncover some information that could explain what had occurred. West Virginia American Water fought hard to narrow the scope of the investigation, and to avoid transparency. But progress was made.

Before long, though, the investigation sputtered to a halt due to the recusal of Commissioner Mike Albert and the subsequent vacancies created by the successive departures of Commissioners Ryan Palmer and Jon McKinney. A year has passed without moving any further toward an answer to this critical question. The appointment of Commissioner Kara Cunningham Williams in October should have been great news for a public hungry for the completion of the investigation.

It’s surprising, then, that — rather than quickly getting on with the investigation — the Public Service Commission has reopened the process by raising doubts as to its own commitment to the endeavor. The PSC issued an order in December wondering out loud whether the requirements of SB 373, which does have some new provisions for source water protection, fully addresses all the problems and leaves the PSC with nothing left to do. Some have interpreted this to suggest that the PSC may be looking for an excuse to abandon its investigation.

We hope that’s not the case. This is hardly the moment for the Public Service Commission, the agency charged by law to ensure that water delivered to consumers is “pure, wholesome, potable and in no way dangerous to the health of the consumer,” to declare than protecting water is “not our job.” There is no good excuse to dodge the one question that the people want most to have answered. “How could this have happened?”

If the PSC drops the ball by discontinuing the investigation at this critical juncture, we will likely never have the full story of all that went wrong in January 2014. The Public Service Commission should not willfully choose to reject learning the lessons that came out our winter of discontent.

Are we going to ever find out how the crisis could have happened? Is the one public body most knowledgeable about WV American Water’s system going to finally delve into the truth to answer that question? We hope so.

In January 2014, we felt abandoned by those whose job it is to protect us. We hope that the PSC does not make us feel this way once again.

Karan Ireland is a steering committee member of Advocates for a Safe Water System and a member of the Charleston City Council.