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Surprises arrive with latest water bills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some West Virginia American Water customers were surprised this week to see increases on their most recent water bill -- despite being unable to use their water for several days.

"These water bills should have stayed the same," said Dunbar resident Paul Welker. "I think the water company's ripping us off."

On Jan. 9, a chemical leak from Freedom Industries into the Elk River above West Virginia American's Charleston water-treatment plant prompted state and local officials to warn 300,000 water customers in nine counties not to use their water for cooking, drinking or bathing.

It took several days before water officials started telling customers it was OK to flush out their water lines and start using water again. Some residents still aren't using it.

Water customers were told they would receive a 1,000-gallon credit on their bills so they wouldn't have to pay for the water used in flushing the pipes. However, when water bills came out this week -- including the period between the chemical leak and the time residents were told it was safe to flush their lines -- many customers received bills showing their water usage had gone up.

"Everyone I've talked to said their bill has gone up, not down," said Loretta Jividen, who lives with her husband, Rex, across Highland Avenue from Welker.

Welker and the Jividens saw their water bill increase by only a few dollars in January. However, one of their neighbors saw the bill go up from about $43 in December to about $57 in January, and one elderly woman on a fixed income in the neighborhood saw her bill go up from $70.65 to $99.11.

Increased water bills aren't confined to Dunbar. Harry Machado of Winfield said his latest water bill is about 40 percent more than his previous bill.

"We were out of town for two days during the water crisis, and we haven't been using the water for anything but flushing the toilet," he said. Even after being cleared to flush his water lines, Machado said, he and his wife are still drinking and cooking with bottled water.

"Where's that 1,000-gallon credit they're supposed to give us?"

Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the water residents used to flush out their pipes might account for much of the increase in use. She said the water company is still working out details with the state Public Service Commission on how to apply the water credit.

"Those [credits] have not been applied yet," Jordan said. "Customers will see that on a future bill.

"For some customers, it may be their next bill, and for some, it may be the bill after that."

The math doesn't add up for Welker, who has a 5/8-inch water line going into his home.

By his calculation, at most, 20 gallons of water a minute could be flowing into his house. By flushing his pipes for the water company's recommended time of 15 minutes for the hot water and five minutes for the cold, he should have used 400 gallons of water, even though his bill shows he used far more.

"I timed it to the minute," he said.

Even though the toilet was used during the water emergency, Welker said, the water used in flushing the lines should have been more than offset by the water he and his wife weren't using to cook, drink or bathe in.

Jordan said that 95 percent of all water bills are based on actual water meter readings, so what Welker's water meter says should represent the actual amount of water that went into his home.

She suggested some customers might have used more water in January than they thought.

"In general, January is our highest-usage month anyway," Jordan said. She said a storm early in the month that plunged temperatures into the single digits caused a sharp rise in water usage, as customers left faucets running to keep their lines from freezing.

In August, West Virginia American had to correct the bills of 49,000 customers who had been either overcharged or undercharged. Company officials attributed the billing errors to a glitch in new billing software.

Whatever the reasons for the increases, some water customers say they aren't having much luck getting information about their bills from the water company.

"We called the water company," Machado said, "and they can't give us any answers."

Welker said he hasn't yet called to ask why his bill went up. "Their standard answer is, 'You've got a water leak,'" he said.

Rex Jividen did call the water company -- and was told he might have a water leak. Just to make sure, he said, he put dye in his toilet tank to make sure it wasn't leaking, and he checked the readings in and out of his water meter.

"I don't have a leak," he said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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