The water crisis in West Virginia is a wake-up call for our elected officials. Loud and clear, it screams that we must act to protect our precious common water resources from the rampant pollution of the fossil fuel industry and the abuses of water privatization.
The specifics of the spill keep changing as more information comes out almost every day, but here are the facts as we know them right now: On January 9, about 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH — chemicals used to treat coal — spilled into the Elk River about a mile and a half upstream of the regional water treatment owned and operated by West Virginia American Water. More than 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties were banned from using their tap water for anything but toilet flushing for between five and nine days. Hospitals treated hundreds of people for symptoms related to chemical exposure. Many residents continue to question the safety of their tap water and refuse to drink it.
While the source of the spill was a storage tank owned by the uncannily named Freedom Industries, the tap water contamination would not have been anywhere near as widespread and catastrophic as it was without the consolidation of water systems that occurred through privatization.
West Virginia American Water, an arm of the nation’s largest water company American Water, is the largest water utility in West Virginia. It has grown into the behemoth it is today over the last several decades primarily by buying up aging public service districts and extending water lines to unincorporated areas, often where household wells were contaminated by the coal industry. The company has entered into dubious public-private partnerships to access public financing to expand its network to these households, while as Appalachian Voices said, “Not a penny was paid by the coal companies that polluted the water in the first place.”
WV American Water has come under fire for its response to the spill. The company reportedly learned about the spill late in the morning on January 9. Because it originally thought that its treatment plant would remove the chemical, the company didn’t warn customers about the contamination until later that afternoon. Since then, commentators have wondered why the company failed to put in place safeguards to protect against such a major contamination event. Some customers are now calling for the company to develop an alternative backup water supply to prevent another disaster. Sign their petition here.
The company has also been a no-show at public meetings about the spill, upsetting some residents and prompting further calls for the city of Charleston to take over the system. Charleston has explored purchasing its water system in the past, but the company has consistently refused to sell.
Privatization is often touted as the most efficient ways to improve water systems. But even before this latest spill, WV American Water’s performance record gives lie to that claim.
WV American Water charges the highest water rates in the state, according to the state Consumer Advocate Division. Just last year, the company hiked the average customer’s bill by another 7 percent, which the consumer advocate said, “will make water service even less affordable for many of the 171,000 households and businesses it serves.” A typical household pays the company about $650 a year for water service. WV AARP is calling on company not to hike rates in response to spill.
WV American Water has been losing and could not account for more than 37 percent of its water in the Kanawha Valley. The Utility Workers Union of America worries that because of the system’s excessive amount of leaks, MCHM could contaminate the ground or groundwater.
WV American Water is understaffed. In 2011, the company wanted to lay off about 10 percent of its workforce — 31 jobs — to pad its bottom line after state regulators denied one of its rate hike requests. At the time, regulators forbade it from cutting most of the jobs it wanted to and set a minimum staffing level. But, the company, as of its latest quarterly report, had 11 vacancies it needed to fill to meet that requirement.
Perhaps because of insufficient staffing, WV American Water was also failing to perform needed routine maintenance. It fell one-third short of its targets for valve operations, and it had a compliance rate of only 24 percent for tests of large meters required by the state.
Despite the company’s role in the catastrophe, and its poor performance record, an investment analyst told Bloomberg earlier this week that American Water may stand to benefit most from any new regulation resulting from the spill. He even speculated that the spill would prompt more governments to privatize their water systems. But that throws logic to the wind.
We may know very little about the long-term health effects of the chemicals that contaminated the tap water, but one thing we do know is that water privatization has failed the people of West Virginia.
As Jedediah Purdy wrote in the New Yorker, “The entire crisis is a tableau of abdication: years of privatization and non-regulation followed by panic.” Privatization at its essence is the failure of government. We simply cannot afford to allow our elected officials to avoid their duties any more. We need responsible public management of our water systems to ensure that everyone has access to safe and affordable water service.