Editor’s note: This story is the second in an investigative series regarding the Lincoln County Public Service District.
HAMLIN — The Public Service Commission of West Virginia is working to determine whether the Lincoln County Public Service District is a “distressed or failing utility,” making it one of the first times this law has been invoked.
In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature enacted the Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act, which authorizes the commission to “protect the consumers of distressed and failing water and wastewater utilities” by ordering various corrective measures up to and including acquisition of a failing utility by a capable water or wastewater utility.
The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council recently discussed details of this investigation while reviewing a request to update the scope, cost and funding to the Alum Creek tank project from the district during its meeting May 25 — a request the council voted unanimously to table until September.
“The PSD currently has significant drinking water violations with a current EPA [Enforcement Targeting Tool] score of 48,” said Stephanie Hickerson from the Bureau for Public Health.
According to a memo on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, the enforcement targeting formula is the basis for the enforcement targeting tool that identifies public systems having the highest total noncompliance across all rules, within a designated period of time.
“Without getting into all the details of those scores, that’s just horrible,” said Jonathan Fowler, a council member. “It sounds like 48, that’s not too bad. Well you know, a score of 6 is bad but they’re at 48.”
These scores are calculated using a weighted scale for health-based, monitoring, reporting and other violations. When first implementing the score system in 2010, any system with a score of 11 or higher was to be considered a “priority system for an enforcement response.”
Fowler, who also serves in the Utility Regulation Section of the Public Service Commission, said he has years’ worth of violations on his desk to go through pertaining to the district. He said this level of violations is a testament to a lack of real leadership in the district.
“Right now on my desk, there’s a list of 59 violations and two consent orders from the Bureau for Public Health, plus there’s a list of violations from the DEP that go back years that have not been addressed,” Fowler said. “That speaks to the lack of managerial oversight of the district, which is one of the things that prompted our review.”
Regarding the tank itself, Jonathan Carpenter, Principal-in-Charge with Thrasher, said there is an eminent need for the tank to be replaced.
“This is the main tank that serves Lincoln PSD, and it’s had problems over a period of time,” Carpenter said. “They did a temporary weld on it some two years ago and it’s still been leaking ever since. Yes the Public Service Commission is investigating the situation, but it’s leaking on the ground and it’s tearing up the road as we speak right now.”
There is 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.
There is also damage to a roadway in the area believed to be caused by runoff from the tank. Lincoln County Commission President Josh Stowers said May 20 it was reported to him by a homeowner who told him they were unable to drive the entire way to their home on the hill because of it.
Stowers provided an update May 24 and said the district had laid some gravel in the area in hopes that it would mitigate the problem.
Fowler said the loss from the tank is significant.
“It’s maybe 50 gallons a minute, maybe more than that,” Fowler said. “It’s a good stream of water.”
Fowler said that past attempts to patch the leak have failed.
“It is leaking very, very badly,” Fowler said. “It’s leaking through the floor. The tank sits on a concrete ring wall, a circular solid concrete wall that supports the tank shell. Below the tank floor, we anticipate that that’s completely full of water. The water is coming out over top of the ring wall underneath the tank shell and running down the hill, and that’s what’s done the damage over the years. This has been leaking for a long time. They’ve made temporary repairs twice…Those two repairs have both failed.”
Carpenter said the district was preparing for another temporary fix, but that the forty-year-old tank is ultimately going to need to be replaced.
Fowler said the council does not want to look at providing a loan to a system that may “cease to exist as it is now.”
“We don’t know, in the long run, how the district’s going to move forward,” Fowler said. “This distressed and failed utilities investigation, it’s one of the first times this law has been invoked. Something similar to a general investigation right now to determine how the district’s been managed, its finances. Try to identify problems in the district and try to come up with a way to move forward, but it’s very early in that process right now.”
West Virginia American Water was named as a potential capable proximate for the district in the March 22 procedural order.
The commission began looking into the district in March after employees resigned “en masse” and requested the investigation. The initial filing from March 12 stated staff have 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.”
The filing also stated that on Feb. 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a Notice of Violation and Opportunity to Confer after finding the district has violated certain provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. The filing stated the EPA has given the district the opportunity to confer with the EPA to show “cause as to any reason why EPA should not pursue a formal enforcement for the aforementioned violations and to show that the System is in compliance with the SDWA.”
Former employees also detailed issues with water being untreated or receiving too much chlorine. Within the office itself, they also cited a hostile work environment, employee treatment, customer treatment and breach of confidentiality as reasons for the walkout.
Susan Small, Director of Communications with the commission, said a technical memo will be filed by the end of the May detailing all of the issues the commission has been looking at through its investigation. As of press deadlines for this article, the memo had yet to be released.
Staff have been charged by the commission to complete their investigation and submit recommendations on or before June 10.