Investigation
6:38 pm
Sun July 6, 2014

Five Things From West Virginia American Water's Testimony to the PSC Regarding the Elk River Spill

West Virginia American Water
Credit Foo Conner / Flickr

In May, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia opened a general investigation into West Virginia American Water’s response to January chemical spill at Freedom Industries. The investigation followed heavy scrutiny from the public over the water company not shutting down their intake along the Elk River downstream of the spill.

As part of the investigation, West Virginia American Water was required to submit testimony to the PSC outlining the company's actions after becoming aware of the spill, a chronological listing of test results for MCHM as well as a narrative describing the process and factors used to decide whether to shut down their intake. The company was also asked to provide a description of agencies and external entities consulted following the spill, and a description of alternative sources of water treatment or supplemental sources of treated or finished water.

Here are five things to from West Virginia American Water’s testimony to the PSC:

1. West Virginia American Water Continues to Defend Their Position on Not Shutting Down the Intake

In testimony to the PSC, along with an attached statement prepared for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, West Virginia American Water officials said it would have been a minimum of 45 days to get the water system back to full operations if they had shut the Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant down after the spill.  

Company president Jeffrey McIntyre and engineering manager Brett Morgan explained that the issuance of the "do not use" order was decided over shutting down the intake. According to testimony from both McIntyre and Morgan, the decision was made in cooperation with West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Public Health. 

"Based on the Company’s familiarity and experience with the complexities of the Kanawha Valley system, the consensus reached with BPH was that a shutdown would have deprived the public of these basic aspects of water service for a considerable period of time," Morgan said.

2. Average Wait Time for Calls to the Parent Company's National Call Center was 18 Seconds

Aside from the toll free line to answer questions about the lifting of the "do not use" order by zones, West Virginia American Water's parent company made changes at its national call center in Illinois. WVAW President Jeff McIntytre said calls to this location were designated "#1 priority" and  the average speed of answer for West Virginia customers from January 12 through January 19 to that location was 18 seconds.

3. Nearly 5,000 Water Samples Were Collected from January 9 to March 31

West Virginia American Water's testimony indicated testing was conducted by at least eight labs. 2,235 samples were collected at the Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant and an additional 2,490 were collected throughout the distribution system.  As of February 25, concentrations of MCHM were below detectable levels (2 parts per billion), which was 500 times lower than the CDC's recommended drinking water screening level threshold for the chemical (1 parts per million).

4. The Company Says No Treatment Alternatives or Sources of Treated Water Were Available

Brett Morgan, West Virginia American Water's Engineering Manager, provided testimony regarding alternative treatment or water sources that the company may have been able to provide. He said the Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant is WVAW's only treatment facility for the areas affected for more than 40 years. 

"The Elk River is the sole source of raw water to the Plant, and the Company did not have any workable options to consider on an emergency basis for temporary or permanent alternative sources of raw water following the Freedom Industries spill," said Morgan in his portion of the testimony.

Morgan explained that there are a number of interconnections that allow West Virginia American Water the ability to help other smaller utilities but, he argued that none those facilities--alone or all together--could have replaced treatment and production at WVAW's Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant.

5. Social Media Played a Significant Role for West Virginia American Water

"Liking" your local water utility may not be common practice for most but, West Virginia American Water used social media to help spread the word on the initial "do not use" order that was implemented after the Elk River spill. According to McIntyre's testimony, West Virginia American Water saw a significant increase in reach on social media from the days before the spill to the days after, as their average Facebook total reach went from about 800 to 62,000. 

As the investigation continues, here's a look at the procedural timeline for the case:

For now, you can take read West Virginia American Water's entire testimony and view the additional exhibits here: