WSAZ Investigates | More than 35% miss ‘stern’ hydrant deadline

More than 100 water districts -- 35% statewide -- missed a deadline to turn over hydrant records to the West Virginia Public Service Commission.
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 7:22 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - More than 35 percent of West Virginia’s local water utilities missed a “stern” deadline to turn over hydrant records to the state Public Service Commission.

The PSC ordered utilities to produce the records June 30, amid weeks of investigation by WSAZ NewsChannel 3, and less than 24 hours after the station reported on a senator’s call for testimony.

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 a wide range of basic questions about hydrants -- from inspections to if the water lines are big enough to provide the water needed to fight fire.

Our questions spurring action from state leaders, including lawmakers and the PSC.

The PSC’s June 30 order demanded information on hydrant maintenance from every water utility in the state, requiring each of the state’s 301 districts to submit inspection records and answer a series of questions.

But Johnson found responses have just trickled in -- only about half met the first deadline in late July.

Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, was among those concerned at a Aug. 7 committee meeting.

“What do you do if they don’t respond?” she asked PSC Engineer Jonathan Fowler. “I mean these people’s are potentially in danger, so how do we best protect our constituents?”

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

That order came just hours later. A PSC press release described it as “a sternly worded order,” which extended the deadline for utilities to Aug. 25, last Friday.

The release also states for those failing to meet the new deadline, “the consequences could be serious.”

The order called hydrants, “a front and center public safety issue for which timing is of the essence and further delay is unacceptable.”

Yet, as of Tuesday morning, there’s still no response from 112 water districts -- with more than 35 percent of districts statewide choosing not to respond.

So Johnson reached out to the PSC.

“We just want to know what action PSC will take as far as consequences?” Johnson asked.

The spokesperson he spoke with said PSC would not comment and his request for an interview with PSC Chairwoman Charlotte Lane was denied.

While WSAZ will continue to ask the PSC for answers on what those consequences will be, Johnson also the state House Infrastructure Chairman, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, for his take on those missing the deadline and what PSC should do next.

“Now that more than 100 have not responded, what should PSC do?” Johnson asked.

“Well, I would certainly hope PSC would once again reapproach them and figure out what the issue is responding,” Linville replied. “If necessary we need to, perhaps, send our regulators out to go get that information.”

“Now that they issued an order, and for someone not to respond that, what should the reaction be?” Johnson asked.

“To start with, I’m personally frustrated and I think the committee likely is very frustrated, simply because we just want this information,” he said. “We want this information -- not about any particular instance -- we want this information so we can do our jobs that we’ve been tasked with by the people of the state of West Virginia.”

Linville says that information is needed to draft legislation to protect your family and property.

Responses received so far show a broad range of maintenance, protocols and record keeping -- some districts with very meticulous records, others with no records at all.