Utility workers ask W. Va. officials to strictly regulate area water firm

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CHARLESTON, W. Va. (PAI) - The Utility Workers, who represent West Virginia American Water workers-who must deal with the aftermath of the chemical spill into the Elk River that poisoned drinking water for 300,000 people - want state officials to strictly regulate the water firm, and especially keep a beady eye on its staffing levels.

The Jan. 23 letter from national union President Michael Langford to West Virginia Public Service Commission Chairman Michael Albert is the Utility Workers' most extensive statement on the spill. Utility Workers Local 537 members work for the water firm, along with other utilities in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

West Virginia American Water has 278 workers in the affected area. Langford reminded Albert the commission's own staff calls that inadequate. WVAW wants to stop filing quarterly staffing reports. It's been filing them for two years, due to past problems.

WVAW is dealing with the aftermath of the Jan. 9 chemical spill, and Langford emphasizes the firm did not cause it. But he contends the water company may lack the personnel to deal with the toxic chemicals, their cleanup and their aftermath.

"Our local has testified from first-hand experience about the need for substantial upgrades to West Virginia American Water's infrastructure and the impact of continuing manpower shortages on the ability of the workforce to operate and maintain aging mains and other facilities. We are not alone in voicing such concerns," Langford said.

"The commission itself expressed frustration in late 2011 over American Water's emphasis on investing in new accounting software rather than on distribution system upgrades," he said. The short-staffing 'is shortsighted and not in the best interest of WVAWC or its customers,'" he added, quoting the commission itself.

The result, Langford told Albert is leaks - lots of leaks. While the commission accepts a maximum of 15 percent leakage, Langford noted, its staff found WVAW's pipes leaked 37.57 percent of their water last May and June in the Kanawha District alone.

"The (commission's) staff went on to express concerns about the number of leak repairs and the failure to meet valve inspection targets," Langford told Albert. "Data highlighted by the staff were prepared by American Water. Moreover, in identifying 'resource' concerns, the staff pointed out that American Water's staffing levels were below commission-approved minimum numbers.

"One immediate concern is that a consequence of the excessively high leak rate in West Virginia American's distribution system is that a significant amount of the contaminated water pumped through the system will have leaked into the ground. The union does not know whether this presents a public health concern, but believes that the matter warrants investigation.

"We do not know-and take no position on-whether any deficiencies in American Water's infrastructure contributed to this water crisis. Our purpose in writing is not to point fingers, but to focus on the future. Toward that end, we urge the commission and other agencies charged with investigating this situation and crafting going-forward recommendations to consider how best to address any deficiencies they find in American Water's physical and human infrastructure," Langford concluded.

Photo: Workers inspect an area around Freedom Industries, the site of the chemical leak in West Virginia. Steve Helber/AP

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