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The state’s topmost regulatory agency is giving a small, struggling Fayette County water utility 30 days before it forces a nationally funded, statewide provider to take over.
The West Virginia Public Service Commission announced May 20 it was investigating the Page-Kincaid Public Service District in upper Fayette County. Roughly a year before the investigation took off, 400 of Page-Kincaid’s 650 customers sent the PSC a petition, alleging dirty water and poor quality of service.
Page-Kincaid was negotiating a deal with West Virginia American Water from November to February, according to the PSC. Those negotiations fell apart when Page-Kincaid rejected two offers from West Virginia American Water. One offer was to acquire Page-Kincaid’s water distribution assets, leaving water treatment assets and the sewer system out of the deal. American Water’s second offer was to sell Page-Kincaid treated water from its nearby New River site.
“The water customers of Page-Kincaid have suffered and waited long enough for an acceptable resolution to the on-going water quality and service issues they have had to experience,” commissioners wrote in an order on Friday.
During a status conference hearing on July 28, an attorney for Page-Kincaid said the utility’s three-member board would consider an acquisition by West Virginia American Water if the company also agreed to take over Page-Kincaid’s treatment assets and its sewer assets, serving roughly 400 households.
The PSC’s order Friday not only demanded that the two groups come to an agreement, but it also ordered the parties to establish a plan for Page-Kincaid’s water treatment assets.
West Virginia American Water has not made an offer on Page-Kincaid’s equipment for treating water, nor has it offered to take over Page-Kincaid’s sewer system. The company’s vice president of operations, Chris Carew, said during the hearing on July 28 that his staff still needed to review information on the sewer assets from Page-Kincaid.
Commissioners wrote they were “frustrated” that American Water had not yet reviewed the Page-Kincaid’s sewer information. According to the PSC, American Water promised to do so in April.
Page-Kincaid customers say they haven’t trusted the water for years. The PSC wrote Friday that staff for the commission found Page-Kincaid has failed to do key maintenance projects on its equipment.
PSC Staff also have raised red flags about nearby abandoned gas wells and coal mining operations, since Page-Kincaid treats and sells groundwater to its customers.
The Fayette County Commission filed petitions in circuit court for the removal of Page-Kincaid’s three-member board in July.
“The [Public Service] Commission believes that all the elements are in place to reach a reasonable and beneficial solution and insists the parties put aside their differences and mutually work out a reasonable solution,” the PSC wrote. “Rest assured that if negotiations are not successful in the next 30 days, the Commission will bring to bear all means available to it to make water system improvements happen with or without the cooperation of the Page-Kincaid Board members.”
Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 739 in March, also known as the “Distressed and Failing Water and Wastewater Utilities Improvement Act.” The bill gives the PSC the authority to “direct a takeover of a distressed utility by a proximate capable utility.”
If Page-Kincaid and American Water fail to reach an agreement within a month, this would be the PSC’s first time forcing an acquisition under the new law.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.