Editor’s note: This is the first investigative story in a series regarding the Lincoln County Public Service District.
HAMLIN — The Public Service Commission of West Virginia issued a procedural order to begin investigating the Lincoln County Public Service District March 22 to determine whether the district is a “distressed or failing utility.”
Susan Small, Director of Communications with the commission, said that a technical memo will be filed by the end of the month detailing all of the issues the commission has been looking at through its investigation.
Former employees filed a staff petition to the commission in March requesting the investigation after resigning, en masse. The district currently serves a population of approximately 3,772 people.
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 February 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.”
When it comes to issues at the district, the Lincoln County Commission has discussed the 40-year-old water tank located at Alum Creek during recent meetings. President Josh Stowers and Commissioner Phoebe Harless voted May 6 to commit $250,000 of COVID-19 relief funds to a replacement tank, contingent upon both federal guidance for said funds and receipt of the additional $750,000 in grants of needed funding.
Steve McKenney was a Chief Operator at the district for about six months at the start of 2019. Before that, he had 31 years of experience in the field. He said the leaking tank caused issues when trying to operate the plant and keeping the tank filled to needed levels.
“That was a handicap,” McKenney said. “We were wasting money by putting it on the ground out of a tank that was leaking.”
Greg Ryan, who spent nearly five years as a field supervisor for the district, said he reported the severity of the leaking tank to board members nearly five years ago.
“August 25, 2016 is when I found that leak,” Ryan said. “And it’s been leaking ever since.”
However, the former employees contend the water tank is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the infrastructure issues facing the district.
Multiple service areas were extended boil water advisories and this includes citizens serviced by the Lower Mud River project that was first introduced in 2014, according to Kenny Elswick, who worked in the field for the district until August 2020. Former office manager Sara Holden said that the issues with the Lower Mud River area included being on a boil water advisory “since day one.”
“[Lower Mud River] is supposed to be top-of-the-line equipment down there,” Elswick said. “They were supposed to have 100 and some customers; only 30 of them signed up and they’ve been on a boil water ever since. Since day one, they can’t even drink their water down there.”
Paula Smith, who spent three years as an office clerk with the district, claims this is because there is equipment in the area that is not working properly to do the job needed to keep the water clean. This includes a lack of chlorine.
“It’s been close to two years since it originally started,” Smith said. “It’s been on a boil water since day one. But the chlorine and the [pressure reducing valve] isn’t working either.”
Smith said she and Holden did boil water notices once a month, and notified all new customers signing up in any area where a boil water was present. However, now that they are no longer working in the office, she said she’s not sure if these notices are still being given to customers.
Smith claimed there were also instances in other areas where too much chlorine was being added to water, which led to customer complaints in the office.
Elswick said inaction has only caused customers to continue to suffer with the quality of the water they receive in their homes.
“It’s sad that they’re letting this go on, and all the citizens are suffering because of poor quality water,” Elswick said. “You couldn’t pay me to drink it right now.”
The water tank, however, has reportedly caused other issues. 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 recent damage to a roadway in the area believed to be caused by runoff from the tank. Commission President Stowers said Thursday it was reported to him recently, and that a homeowner told him they were unable to drive the entire way to their home on the hill because of it.
“It’s a private road so I was even going to try to have DOH go look at it, but DOH can’t obviously address a private road,” Stowers said. “So the gentleman at the top of the hill thinks a little bit of gravel will be sufficient. So what we’re going to try to do is reach out to the PSD and get some gravel laid down. If they’re not able to do it, we’re going to make sure we get some gravel up there to take care of the situation.”
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. West Virginia American Water was named as a potential capable proximate in the March 22 procedural order.
On March 4, five employees of the district resigned. This included the two office workers and three of the five field staff. It is stated, according to the March 12 filing, that while the plant operation staff had not resigned, the other resignations made the current situation involving the district’s ability to operate “even more problematic.”
Smith cited the following among reasons for the walkout in March in comments filed to the commission:
- Hostile work environment
- Employee treatment
- Customer treatment
- Breach of confidentiality
Smith said ultimately, they all felt they had no other choice but to leave.
“We turned around and we reached out to people, and we just feel that we didn’t have no other choice but to walk out,” Smith said. “That was our last option. Nobody wanted to lose their job at all.”
Michael Arbogast, who spent six months as a part of the field crew for the district before the walkout, shared the sentiment that at the time, they felt they had taken all other avenues they could before leaving.
“We did everything we could to keep our jobs,” Arbogast said. “Nobody wanted to help.”
As of press time, the district could not be reached for comment. However, in the commission case records it is reflected that the district responded April 7 requesting the petition be dismissed.
In the filed response, the district claimed its office was “fully staffed with an office manager with a degree in accounting and 20 years of experience” and that field staff positions had also been filled. They also claimed no formal complaints had been filed against the district since 2019.
The district also maintained in its filing that it is “current on all its bond indebtedness, is current on accounts receivable and has sufficient cash to fund its monthly obligations.” The district stated it believed the problems cited by former staff were the result of “staffing problems that have been resolved,” according to the April 7 filing.
The district has a history with the commission involving formal cases regarding both operations and staff.
The staff were charged by the commission to complete their investigation and submit recommendations on or before June 10.