WSAZ Investigates | Hydrant maintenance protocol sealed

WSAZ Investigates | Hydrant maintenance protocol sealed
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 7:15 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - West Virginia’s Consumer Advocate Division, together with staff for the state’s Public Service Commission, is pushing for commissioners to unseal a hydrant maintenance program used by the state’s largest water provider.

West Virginia American Water Company filed its written hydrant maintenance program under seal in late July.

The PSC has ordered water utilities across the state to produce policies and inspection records. That order came 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’s questions spurred action from the governor, lawmakers and the PSC.

West Virginia American turned over its policy and other records July 28 to PSC, while marking most of the 12-page hydrant inspection and maintenance practice as confidential.

That decision came from the largest water provider in the state, responsible for more than 10,000 hydrants statewide, including those that didn’t supply enough water at the Charleston house fire and the Danville Pizza Hut.

WSAZ NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson went to the company president, Rob Burton, days after the Charleston fire.

“I’m just interested in knowing how does your company keep track of hydrant service?” Johnson asked.

“We do annual maintenance and inspection on those hydrants,” Burton replied.

“Every one of them?” Johnson asked.

“Every single hydrant, every year,” Burton replied.

Since then, West Virginia American Water told the PSC its hydrant maintenance policy shows its practice for opening and manipulating hydrants. That information, the company’s motion argues, is not commonly known and public release could harm the company, increase its cost of service and and put it at a competitive disadvantage.

The company’s motion argued the way it maximizes manpower, while making sure hydrants work has value beyond West Virginia.

“Water industry competitors could use these proprietary materials to benefit from that investment, effort, and experience at no cost to themselves, improving their operations and competitiveness at (West Virginia American)’s expense,” its motion states.

PSC staff and the state’s Consumer Advocate Division have objected to that argument in case filings.

Both, having reviewed the document in question, argue West Virginia American has not proven the information should be protected or rises to level of trade secrets.

Instead, PSC staff have said the company’s hydrant practice is very similar to protocols provided by other utilities.

“Staff is perplexed how this information that has been readily provided as public documents by other water utilities ... is deemed to have some type of heightened need for confidential protection or rise to the level of a trade secret,” the staff objection reads.

The Consumer Advocate Division argues West Virginia American’s maintenance program appears consistent with standard operating procedure, writing the company, “made blanket proclamations that their practices go beyond standard procedures, but provided no specificity as to how or which portions of their practices rise to that level.”

The Consumer Advocate added that West Virginia American, “redacted almost the entirety of its policy, including one page that is almost entirely pictures of hydrants.”

WSAZ’s investigation, so far, has found many utilities do not have a written hydrant maintenance policy, and many that have a policy failed to turn it over.

West Virginia American, in responding to PSC staff, noting that reality and insisting no other West Virginia water district has the competitive issues that it has.

The Consumer Advocate Division arguing, as a utility, West Virginia American’s parent company does not compete for customers. Instead, claiming the company competes for investment dollars.

“The (Consumer Advocate Division) fails to see a connection between fire hydrant maintenance and the ability to attract investment capital,” according to the Consumer Advocate’s response filed with PSC.

PSC staff arguing in its objection the written policy should be provided, “to any interested party due to the safety concerns and the gravity of the issue being addressed.”

West Virginia American, in responding to staff, arguing those safety concerns have not been specified and the lack of competition by other districts should not minimize its request.

Company spokeswoman Megan Hannah also provided this response to WSAZ:

“West Virginia American Water consistently seeks protective treatment of its policies in proceedings before the Commission for reasons detailed within the filings of this (general investigation),” she wrote in a prepared response. “The Commission routinely weighs the company’s requests in these standard filings and determines if it will grant that protective treatment.”

The next step will be a ruling from the PSC’s three commissioners. Until then, the document remains confidential with no word on when a ruling will be entered.

Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest.