CHARLESTON — The Public Service Commission dismissed its investigation into whether the Lincoln Public Service District is a distressed or failing utility on Oct. 6, then reopened the case two days later.
The Lincoln County Commission also accepted the resignation of district board Chairwoman Brenda Escue, effective, Oct. 1.
According to public records, nearly 30 letters of protest were filed by customers in the case in the last two weeks, along with an additional staff memo.
“The customer comments filed this week, the Staff memorandum filed on Oct. 5, 2021, and the Commission Order issued Oct. 6, 2021, unfortunately crossed in the mail,” stated the new order issued Oct. 8 to reopen the case. “The Commission was not aware of the reported pump failures when it issued the Oct. 6, 2021 Order. The Commission will reopen this proceeding on its own motion and require Lincoln PSD to file a response to the Staff memorandum.”
The commission will uphold the other recommendations made by staff in its first final memo filed June 10 that requires regular reports be filed by the district.
The commission is also requiring that the district respond to the new staff memo filed Oct. 5. In the memo, staff note that they felt the corrective action plan created by the district was inadequate to address the increasing issues.
“Staff also takes this opportunity given these recent developments to note its displeasure with the inadequate plan filed by the district on Aug. 10, 2021,” the memo states. “Staff believes that given these continuing service of quality issues that hinder the ability of the district to provide ongoing and uninterrupted service to its customers. Staff recommends the Commission direct the District to filed an updated corrective action plan that discusses each of its issues in depth, with detailed steps on how intends to address each efficiency including obtaining funding.”
The memo also notes that failing infrastructure has led to widespread outages recently.
“The district is currently experiencing a water outage affecting 1,000 to 1,400 customers,” the memo states. “The District needs to continue to locate an alternative source of water for the impacted customers, as to allow the customers to remain without a water source is a clear violation of Rule 6.12.9.”
The first letter submitted Sept. 27 was in response to a water main break that closed Midway Elementary School for an afternoon. The letters also include complaints about service and water quality from customers.
“Lincoln PSD can no longer provide decent service to its customers,” said Heather Kessel in a letter submitted Oct. 1. “The infrastructure is bad. In the last 15 days our water service has been off completely 4 times. These outages are not short term they last for several hours and even days.”
Kessel also complained of property damages due to abandoned water towers.
“Property damage is massive because of water towers leaking,” Kessel wrote. “Water towers are closed without consulting residents or notifying them. Closed water towers are left on site without proper or safe removal of such. They are left standing without proper safety measures ... those structures should be removed at the [district’s] cost not residents in the area.”
Leslie Williams said she’s tired of having to constantly buy bottled water both due to outages and to ensure she has drinkable water at home.
“I’m sick and tired of not having water more than I actually have water,” Williams wrote. “There has been a water leak every week. I don’t think we go one week without having at least 1 leak. The water even when it is on smells and tastes horrible. I spend money paying for my water bill, but I also spend money buying bottles of water because the water is not drinkable.”
Rachel Adkins echoed sentiments from Williams, and said living in the area for over 20 years there has been a noticeable decline in water quality.
“I have lived with this water for 20 years and it continues to worsen,” Adkins said. “Half the time it doesn’t work and when it does the quality is so bad that you can’t drink it. My bill has gone form $40-$75 monthly for a family of 4 and I still have to continue to buy $40-$60 of bottled water every month. There are constant leaks and main line breaks that cause boil advisory. Most are not made aware that it is even in effect. Something needs to be done to correct the problem. Lincoln PSD needs to do better for our health and our community.”
The two remaining district board members were in attendance at the Lincoln County Commission meeting Thursday. Karan May, the most recently appointed member, said she has high hopes for the future of the district and wants to work to resolve long-standing issues.
May had approached the commission as a citizen earlier this year over issues she had noticed in her water service from the district before applying to fill a vacancy on the board in July.
The investigation began in March when former employees filed a staff petition to the commission after resigning “en masse.” The initial filing from March 12 stated staff indicated they experienced “ongoing issues” involving the ability to properly bill customers in a timely manner, as well as issues providing the “necessary maintenance needed to ensure ongoing operations of its facilities to provide its customers with adequate water services.”
One of the main focuses through the investigation has been the aging water tank in Alum Creek. The tank is over 50 years old, and previous attempts at repair have all failed. It is the main tank that serves the district.
A memo from commission staff in July deemed the Alum Creek tank to be in “unacceptable and potentially dangerous condition.”
According to an email sent to the district on July 8 by Jonathan Fowler, who is both with the commission and the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the conditions at the tank have worsened to become “a potential threat to the health and safety of the general public.”
“Based on a field visit by our Staff yesterday, the leakage from the Lincoln PSD Alum Creek Tank appears to have has gotten much worse in the past few weeks,” Fowler wrote. “Further, it now appears that the leakage has eroded the soil along a substantial segment of the concrete ringwall foundation supporting the tank. Should this erosion continue unabated, the lightly reinforced ringwall foundation will be undermined and the foundation would likely fail due to the loss of supporting soil. Failure of the ringwall would compromise the stability of the entire tank and may result in catastrophic failure of the structure with the sudden release of the tank contents.”
Staff made a request to the commission in July that the district be given an interim order to begin repairs of the tank. The commission issued this order on July 21.
“Based on the apparent, worsened condition of this tank and the fact that funds are now available to begin repairs to this critical infrastructure, we would recommend that the Commission issue an interim Order directing the District to promptly begin repairs to this structure including the immediate assessment and stabilization, as needed, of the tank foundation,” the memo states.
According to the submitted plan, a temporary 21,000 gallon water storage tank was brought into Alum Creek August 13 for repairs to the current tank located there to officially begin. Ryan Boustany from Thrasher Engineering said Thursday that repairs have been done. However, the way the repairs had to be done left an already too-small tank for the service area even smaller in capacity.
Boustany said Thursday that he was re-approaching the commission for a previously approved motion to utilize $250,000 of the county’s federal relief funds for the construction of a new tank. He said the other $750,000 estimated to be needed for the project was already promised from other sources. It’s unclear yet whether the commission reopening its case will have an impact on securing these funds.
Boustany said the new plan is to purchase a property adjacent to the existing tank to build a new one rather than demolishing and replacing the old one. He said the old tank will be kept on site as a backup in case of an emergency.
The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council awarded the district a $215,000 critical need grant for repairs to the tank. This critical needs grant was applied for after a request to the council for funding for a new tank was tabled until September.
There was another active complaint with the commission detailing property damage reportedly suffered by a resident living near the Alum Creek tank. This complaint was filed in April, and was closed by the commission on August 24 after recommendations were made in both cases for the Alum Creek tank to be repaired immediately.
There is also damage to a roadway in the area believed to be caused by runoff from the tank that has since been filled with gravel in hopes of mitigating the issue.
Also in the corrective action plan were brief plans to address water loss, asset management, water quality compliance and other issues raised in the filings throughout the case. May said more work needs to be done to expand the plan that was submitted to the commission.
Staff released a memo June 10 requesting the commission declare the district as a “distressed utility” because of the ongoing issues. Fowler detailed this process during the June 22 meeting.
“Lincoln is at the Public Service Commission under the failed and distressed utilities act,” Fowler said. “Staff’s issued their additional memorandums. Our recommendations, both from engineering and financial, was that Lincoln is not a failed utility but that they are a distressed utility and staff is recommending that the commission put them under some sort of monitored plan of improvement.”
Recommendations from this plan, which are the recommendations approved by the commission’s recent order, included:
- The district should be required to prepare a detailed corrective action plan addressing all the deficiencies identified in the engineering report to be filed with the commission within 60 days.
- The district should be required to develop a detailed water loss control plan to be filed within six months.
- The district should not pursue any further line extension projects until improvements are made.
- The district should be required to repair the Alum Creek tank by July 12.
- The district should designate one qualified staff member to be responsible for all water quality and routine regulatory compliance matters.
- The district should abandon the current board-controlled management structure and instead have a strong general manager supported by supervisors.
- Going forward, the board should act in an oversight role as opposed to a day-to-day management role.
- The district board should conduct a review of workplace culture and employee practices and policies.
Previously, Fowler said the district does seem to be working to make progress on these problems.
The district currently serves a population of approximately 3,772 people.