WSAZ Investigates | W.Va. PSC threatens punishment in hydrant inquiry

As an update to our investigation False Security, we take a look at fire hydrant safety and regulation in West Virginia.
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 7:16 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - More than a week after half of West Virginia’s water districts failed to comply with a state investigation, the state’s Public Service Commission is now threatening punishment for those that do not respond by Aug. 25.

The agency issued its follow-up order Monday evening, hours after its staff took questions from lawmakers in Charleston.

The order says no further extensions will be granted for any reason and spells out the potential of a misdemeanor conviction and punishment for anyone who fails to comply.

Jonathan Fowler, an engineer with the Public Service Commission, said 150 districts turned over information.

“What do you do if they don’t respond?” asked Del. Kayla Young, D- Kanawha. “I mean, these people are potentially in danger, so how do we best protect our constituents?”

“There will be a further order issued by the commission,” Fowler replied.

The PSC issued its initial order June 30, amid weeks of digging by WSAZ NewsChannel 3, and less than 24 hours after the station reported on a senator’s call for testimony as early as August.

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.

WSAZ NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson, early in the investigation, asked the company responsible for those hydrants questions -- but they wouldn’t give answers.

“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,” replied Rob Burton, president of West Virginia American Water Company.

Gov. Jim Justice, R-West Virginia, called for action two days after WSAZ aired Johnson’s investigation.

“This is ridiculous, Curtis,” Justice said June 7. “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 PSC responded to the governor’s call with its June 30 order, which called for all water districts across the state to provide information on hydrant maintenance and inspections.

The commission issued its follow-up order Monday, extending its July 28 deadline to Aug. 25. It warns districts failing to comply could face serious consequences.

The PSC’s order said maintaining those records should be “business as usual,” a point Fowler stressed to lawmakers.

“I believe all the information that we asked for in our request should be available to any reasonably, well-run utility,” he said Monday.

The PSC’s order said it considers the matter “to be a front and center public safety issue for which timing is of the essence and further delay is unacceptable.”

The meeting with lawmakers also revealed a gap in what agency enforces best practices to ensure hydrants work when needed.

“Did you just say that you do not have an inventory of all the hydrants, currently?” she asked Fowler.

“We do not we are gathering that information right now,” he replied.

The engineer also added the following.

“There are tens of thousands of fire hydrants across the state --- and water utilities have never been asked to report anything other than the number of hydrants in their annual reports,” he told lawmakers. “We do not specifically spell out hydrant practices in our regulation, instead we reference the national consensus standards.”

This week’s order says the PSC intends, “to move expeditiously to develop a list of best practices and requirements for utilities to follow” -- best practices and regulations PSC tells lawmakers have been missing.

Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, helps chair the committee that called Monday’s meeting. He tells WSAZ he wants to see change, but believes the efforts so far are a step in the right direction.

“I wouldn’t say the mission is accomplished yet, but based upon the concerns that have been brought to the Legislature, the Public Service Commission from the governor, from WSAZ and from the public, that we are being responsive,” he said. “We’re we are going to make sure this problem is solved -- and not just solved at one point in time, but ongoing for the next hundred years.”

Linville says he has told PSC to have information ready so lawmakers are prepared and ready to act as necessary when they open next year’s regular session in January.