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Editorial: Requiring more reports from water utility a reasonable step

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

West Virginia American Water has been much in the public eye this month after its water service to all or parts of nine counties was compromised by a chemical spill just upstream from its Charleston treatment plant's water intake on the Elk River.

The spill was not the fault of the water utility company; the source was a leak from an above-ground storage tank owned by a company called Freedom Industries. But two organizations are citing the incident as a basis to keep West Virginia American Water under tighter scrutiny by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

On Tuesday, the PSC agreed, ordering the utility to continue filing quarterly reports on a variety of measures related to its performance for another year.

The chemical spill, and continuing concerns by many of the public over the water's safety, was a good reason for the two group's requests. But there were other reasons, too, more directly related to why the water company was placed under a tighter watch by the PSC in the first place.

The PSC has required West Virginia American Water to file quarterly reports since the fall of 2011. That order resulted from a complaint filed by the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local 537 after the company had announced plans to lay of 31 people. The union contended the layoffs would hamper the company's ability to provide safe and adequate water service.

By order of the PSC, the number of job cuts was reduced to 10. The quarterly reports were ordered through the fourth quarter of 2013, and were to chronicle staffing levels, water line breaks and other measures of the company's service.

West Virginia American Water opposed the request to continue the reports, saying they had no connection to the recent chemical spill or the company's response to it. However, the PSC ruled Tuesday that continuation of the reports would allow it to monitor whether the spill has any lasting impact on the water company's distribution system.

There appeared to be other reasons for continuing the reports.

West Virginia American Water's most recent quarterly report filed last month showed the company had 278 employees, with 11 vacant positions, according to a news report by The Charleston Gazette. That's a staffing level of 20 below what it was a year ago and 11 below the minimum staffing level approved by the PSC in 2011.

The company also did not meet PSC mandates regarding testing and replacement of meters and the utility's own target for maintaining valve operations, according to that same report.

Based on that information, it appears the water company is falling short in key areas of the PSC order from more than two years ago. That alone was justification for requiring West Virginia American Water to continue the reports, at least until it has shown it can consistently meet the standards set out for it.

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