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New citizens group wants in on PSC inquiry of MCHM leak

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

A new citizens group formed after the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical leak wants to have its say in the state Public Service Commission’s investigation of how West Virginia American Water responded to the incident.

On Wednesday, Advocates for a Safe Water System filed a motion asking the PSC to allow it to intervene in the case.

The group, represented by Charleston lawyers Bill DePaulo and Paul Sheridan, was formed by citizens who were affected by the leak, including residents who were customers of West Virginia American Water’s Kanawha Valley system at the time of the spill and who continue to be served by the utility.

“Our mission is to advocate for a safe, effective and healthy water system in the Kanawha Valley and for fair treatment of water customers,” DePaulo and Sheridan wrote in their motion to intervene.

Wednesday afternoon was the deadline to seek to intervene in the PSC’s investigation, which commissioners announced in late May in response to numerous complaints filed by West Virginia American customers over the company’s handling of the Freedom Industries leak that contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 residents in Charleston and the surrounding region.

Commissioners already approved a request by the PSC Consumer Advocate Division to intervene in the case. A motion to intervene also was filed by Charleston lawyer Tony Majestro on behalf of several businesses, including Ms. Groovy’s Cafe & Catering, Cornucopia, and Visions Day Spa, that were affected by the chemical leak.

Commissioners ordered a “general investigation” of the leak and have ordered the water company to provide detailed information, including timelines of its response, including its decision not to close its Elk River intake and any potential alternative water supplies it considered after the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM leaked into the river.

“The issue before the commission is relatively simple — at the time of and under the circumstances that existed with the spill, did the actions of WVAWC in reacting to the spill and the presence of MCHM in its raw water or finished water supply constitute unreasonable or inadequate practices, acts, or services,” the PSC said in its order launching the probe.

Under state law, the PSC has broad authority to order utilities to remedy such problems, and some residents in their complaints to the commission asked the PSC to mandate that the water company take steps to avoid any repeats of what happened in January.

“We want to ensure that public officials take into account ongoing concerns that citizens have about West Virginia American Water,” said Jim Hatfield, a steering committee member of Advocates for a Safe Water System. The group has created an online questionaire (visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/6HT5B66) to ask residents what they want from their water system.

The PSC has directed the water company to provide a broad range of information about its response to the leak by July 2. Prepared testimony of commission staff and any intervenors is due by Aug. 20, and a formal commission hearing is scheduled for Oct. 7-9.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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