National study says Kanawha Valley water rates are higher than most

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CHARLESTON, W.Va (WSAZ) -- West Virginia American Water Company's rates for 2015 in the Kanawha Valley ranked 11th most expensive in the country, according to a national study compiled by Food and Water Watch, and Huntington ranked right behind in 12th.

The study surveyed the 500 largest community water systems in the country by looking at costs per household in January 2015. The study cites that Flint, Michigan, residents pay the most for water, out of the 500 largest community water systems, while Phoenix, Arizona, residents reportedly pay the least.

Advocates for a Safe Water System (ASWS) say if the PSC approves a rate increase like the one proposed, the Kanawha Valley would shoot to the top of the list, meaning families in the region would have the most expensive annual cost for water bills in the country.

Cathy Kunkel with Advocates for a Safe Water System says that is a list West Virginia does not want to lead.

"One of the most expensive water systems in the country is not a selling point for attracting people to our economy," she says.

West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan said, however, that the ASWS data is based on "misleading information."

"Straight rate comparisons do not provide a complete picture of the total cost of providing water service, which is affected by geographic area, water source, distance of water source to customer, customer density and infrastructure age," Jordan said in a release. "It is impossible to make a true apples-to-apples comparison of rates between systems, and experts agree that the practice of rate comparison is unwise."

Marian Keyes has lived in her home in Dunbar since the early 1990s, and she has seen her water bill grow steeper through the years.

West Virginia American Water Company's proposed 28 percent increase to make what they call much-needed improvements and upgrades to their water system.

"West Virginia American Water's rates reflect the full cost of providing service, whereas many public water utilities do not bill for the full cost of service due to federal, state and local subsidies," Jordan said in the release. "We also pay millions of dollars each year in federal, state and local taxes, which public entities do not. Each day, we treat and pump 50 million gallons of water through 4,100 miles of water mains throughout the state. That is more than 200,000 tons of water being moved as far as 70 miles through mountainous terrain before it reaches our customers - all of this at a price of about a penny per gallon."

Keyes attended the public hearing on the rate hike to voice her opposition, but she does not feel like the public's concerns were heard.

"These hearings are supposed to be so we feel we are being heard," she says. "I don't think anybody's listening."

It is an issue of cost and the value of the service, and Keyes does not feel the water quality is worth the high prices. She has health concerns regarding the water after the 2014 water crisis.

"The long-term effects of what's in the water, I'll die before it kills me, but I think about the young families," she says.

Keyes says she drinks the water, because she thinks she will be long gone before the long-term effects can catch up to her. However, when her children and grandchildren visit, she does not let them drink the water and stocks up on bottled water instead.

Kunkel also cites for concern the multiple times within the last 15 years that West Virginia American Water Company has asked for rate increases.

"Our rates have gone up more than 50 percent, so we're just on this treadmill, and we know that if West Virginia American Water doesn't get what they want they'll be back again," she said.

The company says the rate increases are necessary to keep up with the cost of service and maintenance, but not everyone agrees. Keyes says the company needs to remember, "you're there to serve the consumer."

Jordan said, however, that West Virginia American Water has invested more than $150 million in capital for ongoing infrastructural improvements.

"Furthermore, we have more than doubled our company's investment in water main replacement over the past five years and have undertaken various initiatives to address water lost through leakage," Jordan said. "We also reduced operations and maintenance expenses by $1.1 million compared to the last rate filing. We have made necessary investments to provide safe and reliable water service because it is the right thing to do for our customers."

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