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PSC asks for further details on disputed water bills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Officials with the state Public Service Commission say they need to know more about disputed bills for customers of West Virginia American Water.

Earlier this month, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper sent a letter to the PSC asking the agency to look into the bills of customers who say they might have been overcharged for water usage during January's month-long water crisis.

A chemical leak Jan. 9 into the Elk River just upstream from West Virginia American's water treatment plant intake in Charleston contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people in nine counties and prompted state officials to ban the use of tap water for drinking, cooking or bathing.

During the ban, most residents used their water only for flushing toilets or didn't use the water at all. But when they got their bills for the month of January, many customers were surprised to see their bills were as high as or higher than they had been before the crisis.

Even taking into account water they used to flush out their pipes after the water was declared usable again, many residents said they couldn't possibly have used as much water as the water company said they had.

Steve Curry, of Cross Lanes, got a water bill for the month of January that exactly matched his water usage in December, even though he only used his water for flushing the toilet. Even taking into account the water he used to flush out his pipes, Curry doesn't understand how the bills could be exactly the same.

"I thought it was peculiar, then I started hearing about other people that had the same issue," he said.

Some residents were billed for water usage even though they used no water at all. Ryan and Alison Corbin, of Sissonville, turned their water meter completely off following the chemical leak, yet the bill for January said they had used 2,500 gallons of water. The bill for February, due in March, says they used 22,300 gallons, even though the water was turned completely off.

A photograph of their water meter the Corbins gave to the County Commission seems to indicate the reading on the water meter had not changed since the February reading.

Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said some of the water bills that came out during and after the water crisis were based on estimates, because the weather was too bad to take actual readings of water meters. Jordan said 98 percent of customer meters are read each month, but crews were able to take actual readings on only about 86 percent of meters during the crisis.

But Carper is concerned that customers are being told their bills are based on actual meter readings when they are really estimated bills. Both bills the Corbins received said they were based on actual meter readings.

Cheryl Ranson, utilities division director for the PSC, wrote Carper on Monday saying he hadn't provided enough details of the disputed bills for the PSC to investigate. Ranson suggested that customers with billing disputes contact the water company first, then go to the PSC if they still have a complaint about their bills.

To contact the PSC, call 800-344-5113.

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


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