WV American Water chooses sides

West Virginia American Water has come out against the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to reclassify the Kanawha River to “Category A.” Reclassifying the river would require industries along the river to meet stricter pollution regulations so that the river would meet standards for drinking water, opening up the possibility that WV American Water could use the Kanawha River as a backup water supply. The DEP’s proposal represents the common-sense view that some alternative source of water is obviously needed, and reclassifying the Kanawha River would expand the options available to the water utility — and possibly reduce the cost to rate payers of a secondary intake.

But, as Ken Ward reports in the Gazette, WV American Water is apparently uninterested in this idea.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, did not oppose the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposal, but warned that the agency should more carefully “evaluate how this reclassification could impact our local economy.”

“If our local industry is required to comply with more stringent discharge requirements and/or find alternative transportation methods, the costs of doing so could potentially drive industry out of the area,” McIntyre wrote in his July 21 letter to DEP water-quality-standards program manager Kevin Coyne. “This would not only impact the affected industries, but also those who work for such industries, and in turn, the local economy as a whole”

Shouldn’t a water utility’s highest mission be to ensure that its customers receive safe water? Shouldn’t a water utility be one of the strongest advocates for ensuring clean sourcewater?

Instead, we see our water company joining sides with the chemical and coal industries, making the same argument as to why those industries shouldn’t be held to higher standards. Why? WV American Water is worried about the economic impact to those large industries because of its fear that job loss would result in reduced water sales and reduced profit for their company. The company is apparently not taking a long-term view of the potential economic development benefit from cleaning up the Kanawha River and the sorts of new businesses that might be attracted to an area with a safe and healthy water system. Once again, we see WV American Water putting the short-term interests of parent company American Water Works’s shareholders above the interests of residents and small businesses in Charleston and surrounding counties. Indeed, although it doesn’t seem that interested in people in the Kanawha Valley, American Water Works is keeping enough profits for itself that it increased dividends to its shareholders last quarter.

While he is talking about the potential economic impact of reclassifying the Kanawha River, has Mr. McIntyre forgotten the very real economic impact of his company’s failure to have a backup source of water? Businesses lost an estimated $61 million just during the period that the “Do Not Use” order was in effect. But this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. For instance, tourism is down this year along West Virginia’s New River, outside of the impacted area, perhaps due to the negative image of the state created by the water crisis.

I agree with Mr. McIntyre that there needs to be a careful evaluation of all the options on the table for improving the safety of our water supply. This should include not just a careful evaluation by the DEP of reclassifying the Kanawha River, but also a careful investigation by the Public Service Commission into the reasonableness of WV American Water’s operation — an investigation which WV American Water is currently blocking by refusing to provide critical information.

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