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W.Va. American Water losses above levels accepted by Public Service Commission

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant in Charleston loses 3 million to 4 million gallons of the water it sends out to homes and businesses each month.

That fact has the head of one labor union concerned about the potential for ground contamination.

"One immediate concern raised by this data is that a consequence of the excessively high leak rate in West Virginia American's distribution system is that a significant amount of the contaminated water pumped through the system will have leaked into the ground," D. Michael Langford, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, wrote in a letter to state Public Service Commission Chairman Michael Albert Thursday.

State officials and the water company have tested water coming into and leaving the affected treatment plant and fire hydrants all across the 1,700-mile pipeline.

They aren't testing groundwater, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said.

"No, there is no groundwater testing going on," Jordan said in a phone interview late Thursday.

However, test results of water leaving the treatment plant from the last week show no detectable signs of crude MCHM, believed to be the most prevalent chemical involved in the spill.

All of the water that's been flushed by the company also goes into the ground, Jordan said.

"The water that is being flushed or lost underground through leaks is such a minimal level, if it had any trace amounts of chemical in it . . . it does not pose a risk to the public, or animals or vegetation," Jordan said, citing a statement from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

When asked if the data cited in Langford's letter is accurate, she said it is.

In his letter, Langford points to quarterly reports West Virginia American Water was required to file from 2011 through 2013.

The report shows the company's "unaccounted-for water" was more than the 15 percent deemed acceptable by the PSC. During May and June of 2013, the report showed the water system in the Kanawha Valley District had a 37.57 percent unaccounted-for water rate.

Almost a quarter of the water that leaves water plants in West Virginia goes unaccounted for every year, according to an August Gazette-Mail analysis of PSC reports.

Jordan said the company is filing a required quarterly report today. She declined to provide specific information, but said it showed a "significant decrease in unaccounted-for water over historic levels."

The reports disclosing quarterly quality metrics were required by the PSC following a 2011 case challenging layoffs at the water company. The PSC asked the reports continue for each quarter through the end of 2013.

As a result of the recent water crisis, the PSC's Consumer Advocate Division filed a petition Wednesday asking commissioners require the water company to continue to file the reports.

Mark Brooks, special counsel to Langford, said 2,500 American Water employees are a part of the union. None of those employees work directly in Charleston, but 45 work for West Virginia American Water in Huntington, he said.

"We do not know — and take no position on — whether any deficiencies in American Water's infrastructure contributed to this water crisis," Langford said in the letter. "Our purpose in writing is not to point fingers, but to focus on the future."

Water company President Jeff McIntyre disputes that particular claim.

A letter from McIntyre to Albert in response to the union's concerns accuses Langford of using "saddening and disappointing" tactics with the letter.

"It is unfortunate that another union would attempt to undermine the efforts of our employees by conveying misleading information and making unfounded claims in a letter to the Public Service Commission," McIntyre said.

He did not specify which claims were misleading or unfounded.

Brooks defended the letter.

"We're not trying to be alarmist, we're raising issues that we've been raising for quite a while," said Brooks.  

The company's workers in the Kanawha Valley are members of a different union, said McIntyre and Brooks.

Lawrence Messina, state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman, was unaware of the letter when reached late Thursday.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, did not return multiple requests for comment.


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