Responding to the Freedom Industries chemical spill
The Freedom spill has exposed the risks of having 300,000 people on a single water intake without a backup. This situation is a result of West Virginia American Water’s strategy over many decades to centralize its water infrastructure.
This old Public Service Commission order from 1982 provides some of the early history of the expansion of West Virginia Water Service Company (as it used to be called):
The Kanawha Valley District was acquired by the Company through purchase of, or by merger with, a series of companies beginning in 1926 and continuing as recently as 1980 with the time the Company acquired the assets of the Community Water Company, the United Water Corporation and Riverview Development Company. The Company acquired the assets of the West Virginia Water and Electric Company serving Charleston and South Charleston in 1926, the Edgewood Water Company serving the Edgewood area in 1931, the Dunbar Water Works Company serving the Dunbar area in 1931, the Kanawha Valley Water Corporation serving the Nitro area in 1935, and the Kanawha Valley Water Company serving the Belle area in 1935.
The order goes on to note that, as of 1952, the water company had 3 treatment plants for the Kanawha Valley (in Belle, Nitro, and Charleston). “In 1973, after the completion of a new Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant, the installation of larger mains to serve the upper and lower Kanawha Valley areas, the three plants were retired, and water was then delivered from the Charleston plant throughout the KVD.”
Subsequently, in the 1980s and 1990s, the water company embarked on a centralization approach to tie together its disparate holdings across West Virginia into regional water systems. A quick search of the Charleston Gazette archives from the period shows the utility’s attempts to expand its Kanawha Valley holdings by acquiring locally owned water systems in Putnam County, Boone County, Sissonville, and other outlying areas of Kanawha County. Additionally, WV American Water created regional water projects in Fayette County, Mercer/Summers Counties, and elsewhere. As then-company president Chris Jarrett explained in this 1994 Gazette article:
The concept for water purveyors throughout the U.S. and West Virginia is that of a regionalization concept where you build one large production facility and from that you extend water lines out to as many people as you can … It is simply more efficient and more economical, the more customers you can serve from one large production facility
As we have now become painfully aware, the flipside of economic efficiency is lack of resiliency.
This is not just a problem plaguing our water infrastructure. Across the economy – from the food industry to the electrical grid – the drive for efficiency has created increasingly centralized and vulnerable systems, while eliminating local redundancy.