WSAZ Investigates | W.Va. Gov. Justice calls for Action after our investigation into Faulty Hydrants

Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 7:12 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Two days after our WSAZ Investigation, “False Security,” West Virginia’s governor spoke out Wednesday and called for action.

“This is ridiculous,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told WSAZ NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson. “That’s all there is to it. I am right dead with ya. I mean there’s no question whatsoever that the Legislature, the Public Service Commission ought to look into this and everything in any way, because you’re dead on the money.”

The investigation focused on two fires with the same story -- firefighters met by hydrants without enough water to put out the flames.

The most recent fire destroyed a Charleston home on May 5.

Fifteen months earlier, a Pizza Hut burned Feb. 18, 2022, in Danville, West Virginia, and the town’s fire chief took WSAZ on a tour the station’s investigation revealed even more problems.

One hydrant produced so little water that Danville Volunteer Fire Chief Justin Chafin said his firefighters would be unable to save a nursing home. It is located next to a West Virginia State Police barracks and the Boone County Health Department.

“I don’t even want to think about what would happen if there was really a big fire at that place,” he said. “There’s no way that we would be able to help them. We’re just trying to help to get them out as fast as we can before the fire takes over that building.”

Chafin also showed WSAZ a hydrant that wouldn’t be able to save a home sitting just 50 feet away.

Just two days after WSAZ’s investigation, that homeowner and a nearby relative spotted a West Virginia American Water crew testing the hydrant Wednesday.

In fact, the company owns hydrants in Charleston and Danville, although company officials content a red hydrant close to the nursing home and State Police barracks is privately owned.

West Virginia American is the largest water provider in the state with approximately 11,000 hydrants and nearly 600,000 customers.

Its monthly water rates have doubled since 2005, and that includes a surcharge the company added in 2017. Company press releases state the surcharge partly to pays for water mains and fire hydrants.

So WSAZ NewsChannel 3 Reporter Curtis Johnson went to the president of West Virginia American Water, Rob Burton.

“Generally speaking, how is that money used?” Johnson asked.

“It’s a combination of potentially tying a hydrant to a new main, potentially replacing a hydrant,” Burton replied. “Sometimes it’s putting one in when there isn’t one there.”

“Specifically, how many hydrants have been done on that?” Johnson asked. “Do you guys have that information? Do you guys have an idea of that?”

“I don’t have that information right now,” he replied. “No.”

Burton says his company inspects every hydrant each year, so Johnson asked what information the company gets from those inspections.

“Do you guys have real-time information on which hydrants are working and which ones are not?” Johnson asked.

“So, we do have GPS locations of where our hydrants are, but we don’t have some real-time system that monitors the hydrant on an ongoing basis, no sir,” Burton replied.

Johnson also asked about the company’s aging infrastructure.

For instance, the water main feeding the hydrant firefighters used at Pizza Hut is approximately 100 years old, according to a document submitted to state regulators by West Virginia American Water.

The cast iron pipe is so old, it was grandfathered in when state law changed in 1994. That change required new hydrants to be installed on a 6-inch main to provide enough water to fight fires.

“Do you know which hydrants are on what size mains?” Johnson asked Burton.

“We have pretty good information on that we’re doing some validation,” he replied.

“Rough estimate what percentage of these 11,000 hydrants are on a main that’s less than six inches,” Johnson asked.

“So I actually don’t have that information for you right now,” Burton replied. “That would be something that we might, could follow up with you.

Since that interview, Johnson sent the company six emails asking for that information and followed up again Tuesday, but a spokesperson declined to answer questions.

The company only pointed WSAZ to an infrastructure map and to documents it has filed with state regulators. Johnson searched both and nowhere could he find a list of hydrants that your money has purchased.

So, Johnson turned to the Governor’s Office. He sent staff a link to his investigation Tuesday and raised the issue during Wednesday’s press briefing.

“What’s your thoughts on having a hydrant so close to a home or workplace, only to hear firefighters say it won’t produce enough water to help them put out a fire, and should greater transparency be required from water utilities, such as which hydrants are working and which ones remain on small water mains?” Johnson asked.

Justice replied a call for action, telling Johnson it is “ridiculous” for taxpayers to have to question if a hydrant will work.

“That’s all there is to it,” Justice told Johnson. “I am right dead with ya. I mean there’s no question whatsoever that the Legislature, the Public Service Commission ought to look into this and everything in any way, because you’re dead on the money.

“I mean we have very, very, very high water rates in West Virginia.

“It is preposterous. I mean this is something like a -- I hate to say this because it’s just sounds terrible -- but this is something you’d see in a comedy, where great firemen would run to, you know, a fire hydrant and everything and it wouldn’t work.

“I mean these great people, our great firemen, that are willing to run right into the fire and do anything and everything to save property, and I think in one of these situations we didn’t lose life, but we lost a family pet, a family dog and everything.

“Well, for crying out loud, I just think it’s just terrible.

“That’s all there is to it, and we should absolutely investigate. With all in me, I’m going to recommend exactly just that, and I think you’re right on the money. I really appreciate you bringing this to our attention, and we need to get to the bottom of it. You’re dead right. I mean there’s no, no, ifs, ans or buts about it. Absolutely, without any question, your splitting the bull’s-eye.”

There’s no word yet on the timing of that investigation mentioned by the governor.

WSAZ still waits for answers from West Virginia American Water, including how many hydrants remain on those smaller water mains, how many are working and how much of your money has been used to replace them.

For previous coverage:

WSAZ Investigates | False Security