WSAZ Investigates | Senator calls for hearings into faulty hydrants

W.Va. state lawmakers are taking action, after a WSAZ investigation into faulty hydrants led Gov. Jim Justice to speak out and demand further investigation.
Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 8:48 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- West Virginia state lawmakers are taking action, after a WSAZ investigation into faulty hydrants led Gov. Jim Justice to speak out and demand further investigation.

The WSAZ investigation -- False Security -- stemmed from two fires with the same story. Firefighters didn’t have enough water May 5 to fight a house fire in Charleston, 15 months after crews encountered the same issue in failed efforts to save a Pizza Hut in Danville.

Our investigation into the problem found even more issues -- a hydrant next to a nursing home, which produced so little water that its owner took it out of service days after seeing our story.

Also, Danville’s fire chief told WSAZ another hydrant -- just 50 feet from a house -- doesn’t put out enough water to save the home.

WSAZ’s Curtis Johnson took the issue to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice in early June.

”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?” Johnson asked Justice.

This is ridiculous, Curtis,” Justice said. “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.”

That was a couple of days after WSAZ’s initial investigation. Since then, the governor told Johnson that West Virginia American Water — the company that provides water to Charleston, Danville and other parts of our region — told his office it tested about 200 hydrants after the initial story. Justice says, according to the company, five of those hydrants had issues.

Justice says that number should be zero.

”There shouldn’t have been an issue, and I told you that I really appreciated your question and bringing it up and everything else, because there’s just no excuse for that,” Justice said. “I mean, there’s no excuse period, and, you know, we don’t want to get in a situation where, ‘But we had a whole lot of good ones.’ I mean, if we had some bad ones, and they malfunctioned at a time of need, no excuse in my book.”

With the governor calling on the state Public Service Commission and lawmakers to look into the issues, Johnson reached out to both.

That includes multiple requests to speak with PSC Chairwoman Charlotte Lane. A spokesman told Johnson says she’s not ready to answer his questions, only providing this statement.

In a prepared statement, Lane said, ”We are reviewing the situations to see what should be done.”

Meanwhile, it was a different story in the state House and Senate.

House Infrastructure Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, says his staff heard the governor’s call to action and went to work.

”When you watch that video, when you see those hydrants and you hear the firefighter say, ‘Hey, we couldn’t save that structure,’ What’s your reaction,” Johnson asked.

”There’s so many things that obviously are wrong with that,” Linville replied. “First among them, are that there’s risk of life.”

And Senate Infrastructure Chairman Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, called for testimony from the company as early as August.

”Do you believe an investigation is necessary?” Johnson asked.

”Oh, yes. Yes, I think we need to,” Clements replied. “I would be willing to try to work on legislation to get this done, because there’s nothing worse than going out in a car that won’t start. There’s nothing worse than going to a fire hydrant when your house is on fire and you can’t get water.”

Leaders say they believe aging infrastructure is a major part of the problem. For instance, the water main feeding the hydrant firefighters used at Pizza Hut, approximately 100 years old, according to documents submitted to state regulators by West Virginia American Water. The cast iron pipe was so old it was grandfathered in, with state law having since changed in 1994 requiring new hydrants to be installed on a 6-inch main to provide enough water to fight fires.

Clements is now wanting a total review of the 1994 law.

”I think it’s been a reluctance to keep up with maintenance, keep up with, with the rates and everything, so that so that we can, you know, not have these crisis points,” Clements said. “As far as our fire hydrants go, I think we may have reached a crisis point in a lot of area.”

The senator also called for a statewide survey to determine the frequency of inspections, the number of working hydrants and hydrants remaining on a smaller water main -- questions WSAZ asked West Virginia American Water President Rob Burton early in the station’s investigation.

Burton has refused to answer. His company is responsible for 11,000 hydrants statewide, including the hydrants that didn’t supply enough water at the Charleston house fire and the Danville Pizza Hut.

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

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

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

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

So Johnson followed up with multiple emails asking for that information, but a spokesperson refused to answer questions citing litigation. That lack of information comes from the largest water provider in the state with nearly 600,000 customers.

Its monthly water rates have doubled since May 2005. This is in a state where customers already pay the highest water bills in the country, according to World Population Review. The company also added a new surcharge in 2017, one it says is partly to pay for water mains and, you guessed it, fire hydrants.

The company only pointed WSAZ to an online 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, and he’s received zero information on which hydrants work and which ones are on what size water main.

”They told me they won’t provide that information to me,” Johnson asked Clements. “So how can that be? Where does this end?”

”You know, Curtis, with all due respect, I think there’s a big difference when you’re before legislative committee and before a camera and TV set, we can, we can hopefully get them,” Clements replied.

”We’re going to look into this,” Linville added. “We’re going to figure out what’s the cause of this, what should have been done or could have been done prior to this investigation by WSAZ to have prevented this from even happening in the first place all across the state.”

Clements says he hopes for immediate action from the PSC, since lawmakers do not gather again until August and that’s just for routine meetings. That means no action can be taken on legislation until next year’s regular session, which starts in January.