A proposed settlement was filed Wednesday in the state investigation of West Virginia American Water’s role in a chemical spill and resulting water crisis in the Charleston area three years ago.
Thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning agent leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River in January 2014, leaving 300,000 people in nine counties without water for up to nine days. Businesses in the state’s largest drinking water system were temporarily shut down. Residents cleared store shelves of bottled water, and hundreds of people headed to emergency rooms for issues from nausea to rashes after coming into contact with tap water that smelled like licorice.
Attorneys for the parties presented a proposed agreement to the Public Service Commission, which has been overseeing the investigation. The PSC said at a hearing later Wednesday that it would review the proposal, then issue an order.
If approved, the water company agrees to install upstream monitoring systems to detect contaminants sooner, increase tank storage with more emergency supply for residents, report and update measures annually to protect source water and practice emergency measures. It’s building two tanks to hold 8 million gallons of water in Amandaville about 14 miles west of Charleston that could be used in a crisis, the company said.
The company also agreed to study the possibility of adding a second water intake for its Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant, this one along the adjacent Kanawha River.
“We worked diligently and cooperatively with the other parties involved to address the numerous issues raised through this case,” company spokeswoman Laura Martin said. “The settlement recognizes that we have made important changes over the past three years to improve customer confidence in the water system, and additional changes will take place according to this agreement.”
West Virginia American Water has already filed its protection plan with state health officials, according to the settlement. It promises to maintain an incident reporting system that complies with health department requirements that depending on severity will include emergency phone calls, emails and texts; websites and social media; and notifying municipal and emergency management officials.
More than 65 residents attended the PSC’s meeting Tuesday to urge the commission to not give in to persistent water company requests to narrow the scope of the investigation, saying questions remained unanswered.
Attorney Paul Sheridan, a member of Advocates for a Safe Water System, said at Wednesday’s hearing the proposed settlement will “improve the safety of the water system in significant ways.” But he said it had shortcomings and that the group wanted a full investigation of West Virginia American Water’s role in the crisis.
“We think there have been serious transparency issues in the way that the water company conducts matters,” Sheridan said.
Fred Stottlemyer, a former public service district employee in neighboring Putnam County, had testified before the PSC that the water company should have closed its intake at the Kanawha Valley plant after the chemical spill.
The settlement said evidence and testimony was filed in advance, important changes can be achieved based on that, and there would be limited incremental value from the time and expense of a full evidentiary hearing.
Under a separate tentative settlement reached in federal court last fall in a spill lawsuit involving residents and businesses, West Virginia American Water will pay $126 million and chemical maker Eastman Chemical will pay $25 million.
Virtanen reported from Morgantown, W. Va.
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