Two years later, do we have a safe water system?

[Updated 1/9/14 with information provided by WV American Water at the 2nd anniversary event sponsored by WV Rivers Coalition.]

After the January 9, 2014 chemical leak, members of Advocates for a Safe Water System researched other water utilities to find out what would be needed to make our water system safe. We came up with five necessary elements:

  • source water protection planning
  • continuous chemical monitoring
  • an alternate water source
  • infrastructure renewal
  • improved coordination with emergency responders and regulators

WV American Water just released a PR piece touting its accomplishments. Here's how WV American Water stacks up so far:

Source water protection: WV American Water is required by Senate Bill 373 to file a source water protection plan with the Bureau for Public Health this year (only 14 years after the Bureau in 2002 had warned WV American Water that its intake was "highly susceptible" to contamination, a warning the water company chose to ignore). Now that it is required by law to come up with a sourcewater protection plan, WV American Water assures us that it is hard at work developing a computer database of potential contaminants. While the company appears to be developing a good source water protection plan, there is no indication how much of this information will be shared publicly.

Continuous chemical monitoring: WV American Water installed continuous monitoring equipment in 2015 and also emphasizes the gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer equipment that it installed in 2014. This does not represent a major step forward because WVAW used to have a gas chromatograph and continuous monitoring equipment at the Kanawha Valley plant but removed it in 2004-5 to cut costs. Furthermore, while WV American Water states that it is testing for MCHM at the plant once a day, its new/old chemical monitoring equipment does not represent industry best practice and is not capable of continuously monitoring the river for MCHM or diesel.

Alternate water source: WV American Water is required by Senate Bill 373 to include an analysis of the technical and economic feasibility of constructing an alternate intake in its source water protection plan. WV American Water states that the cost of an alternate intake for each of its water systems around the state is $184-$272 million. Such investments would require major rate increases to pay for them (and, of course, WV American Water would be entitled to earn a profit on these investments); the water company has already said that the intakes will not be feasible unless rates are raised even beyond the 28% proposal currently on the table. There is no mention of the independent proposal to construct a reservoir on the Elk River, which has previously been estimated to be less expensive than the alternate intakes that the water company has proposed.

Infrastructure renewal: WV American Water has installed a leak detection system that is helping it find leaks faster. But WV American Water has no intention of proactively preventing leaks through increased investment in main replacement. Even with the proposed 28% rate increase, WV American Water does not plan to increase the rate of main replacement. WV American Water also has not publicly addressed the infrastructure problems that prevented it from having sufficient water stored in the system on January 9, 2014.

Emergency coordination: The water company has provided no information about any efforts to improve coordination with emergency responders and government agencies. 

WV American Water has made some changes, largely to comply with state law and/or their own previous practices, but we are still a long way from a safe water system. Instead, WV American Water's 28% rate increase proposal is proof of where its priorities really lie. WV American Water is not willing to invest more in upgrading our water mains, but its rate increase would double the amount that we pay in dividends to its parent company, New Jersey-based American Water. When it comes to major infusions of new ratepayer money, its clear that WV American Water is not putting its customers first.