PSC Staff “struggles to understand” some of WV American Water’s decisions on Jan 9

This is our third and final post on the direct testimony filed last week in the Public Service Commission’s investigation of West Virginia American Water’s response to the Freedom Industries chemical leak. Here we’re looking at what different parties had to say about the Company’s response on the day of the spill.

The Staff’s testimony provides a good timeline of the events of January 9th. The Company states that they were notified of the spill just before noon. They obtained the material safety data sheet for the chemical from Freedom Industries and began modifying the treatment process (adding potassium permanganate and powdered activated carbon). They did not notice the presence of MCHM in their finished water until 4pm. At that time they consulted with the Bureau for Public Health and decided to issue a Do Not Use order. The Do Not Use order was released to the press at 5:50pm, and the Company began automated phone calls to customers at 8pm.

According to Sustainable Business Council witness Mazyck, the modified treatment process that the company embarked on may not have been particularly effective because the chemicals added offset each other: “the WVAWWC apparently does not understand that chlorine and KMN04 [potassium permanganate], strong oxidants, are deleterious to PAC making it far less effective than if added alone.” However, the Company was apparently confident that its treatment process would prevent the chemical from entering the finished water.

The Company also issued a press statement in the afternoon in which, according to Staff witness David Dove,

it claimed that the contaminant was not harmful to human health … Staff has struggled to understand how the Company could make this statement to the public, considering that the Company had no knowledge of the concentration levels that initially the public may have ingested or been exposed to or the long term health effects, and that the MSDS [material safety data sheet] clearly stated that the chemicals were in fact harmful to human health.

The Staff notes that the company has the authority to issue a Do Not Use order on its own, without consulting the Bureau for Public Health, and should have done so immediately upon being notified of the spill, at noon. This would have reduced demand on the system and given themselves more time to respond, as well as reducing public exposure to the chemical.

The Company didn’t notify the public of the possible danger of the chemical for hours after the Company became aware of the spill, while misleading the public with its press releases stating that it was not harmful to human health. This is inconceivable, in light of the fact that the MSDS clearly state that the chemical is harmful if swallowed and harmful to human health. Staff believes that public health as it relates to ingestion, exposure, or inhalation of a toxic substance is more critical than public sanitation or fire protection. For these reasons the public must be afforded notice at earliest possible moment when an event like this occurs.

Staff argues that, in the future, the company should “[a]lways immediately issue a “Do Not Use” public notice so as to afford the public as much warning time as possible in the event of the discovery of any contaminant, toxin or substance that is or may be dangerous to human health.” It should also “[d]evelop, implement, distribute and practice emergency response plans that include immediate notification of “Do Not Use” orders to prevent possible public exposure to contaminants that may be harmful to the public health.”

In summary, the testimony provided by the various parties to the Public Service Commission’s general investigation show that the Company’s response was severely hampered by its lack of planning, lack of proper monitoring and testing equipment, and poorly maintained and operated infrastructure. Poor judgement calls on the day of the spill further exacerbated the situation.

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