Jessica Shockey’s problems with her water started right after she moved from Fayetteville to the small, unincorporated coal town of Laurel Creek two years ago. She gutted and remodeled an old house she bought with her husband, replacing all of the plumbing, and spending more than $15,000 on new appliances.
Today, she says she has to bleach those sink basins and toilets almost daily because of the water. Not only is she scared to drink it, but she won’t even risk giving it to her pets or letting her 8-year-old son bathe in it. She gets three, five-gallon jugs of water delivered to her home monthly for cooking and brushing her teeth – all while still paying utility fees to the Page-Kincaid Public Service District.
“As soon as you turn the faucet on, it's either yellow, brown or copper-like looking,” Shockey said. “And if you leave it in like a glass or a bottle for hours, for hours at a time, you come back to it and it has particles that look like rust.”
Last fall, Shockey said she brought clear bottles, full of brown water straight from her tap, to a public hearing with the West Virginia Public Service Commission in October.
The PSC announced in May that the regulatory body is investigating complaints from Shockey and others regarding the Page-Kincaid Public Service District, which services more than 600 customers in western Fayette County.
It’s been almost a year since Page-Kincaid customers first requested an investigation. According to the PSC, more than 400 people served by the utility signed petitions last July, attesting to poor service quality and high utility rates.
The investigation, announced May 20, also follows months of failed negotiations between the small Fayette County utility and West Virginia American Water, a national company serving more than 550,000 customers statewide, including certain areas of Fayette County.
“For a number of years, I'm sure that the service was provided and it was a good service,” county commission president Denise Scalph said of Page-Kincaid. “But, you know, throughout the years, and particularly in the last couple years, the people there have suffered. There has to be an answer for the problems that they've been experiencing.”
The PSC said in filings it held back on investigating the complaints last year because it was already considering a request from Page-Kincaid to complete a $3.35 million rehabilitation project.
The utility’s board member and secretary John David said the plan was to replace three large water filters, and the utility needed approval from the PSC to apply for certain grants to do that.
But the utility withdrew its request after West Virginia American Water intervened and offered to help develop an alternative solution to the utility’s water problems. In January, American Water had two proposals: American Water could slowly take over the Page-Kincaid water distribution system over three years, or the company could sell treated water to Page-Kincaid.
Page-Kincaid rejected both offers in February, though, saying the local utility would only consider an offer that included taking over its sewer system.
American Water has said Page-Kincaid never provided requested information on the sewer system. The PSC has ordered that Page-Kincaid file that information by Wednesday, June 10.
David referred to the failed negotiations as part of “an orchestrated campaign” on the Public Service Commission’s part. He said he would be concerned about the quality and price of water American Water would provide, if the company were to take over.
“American Water would charge more than we do,” he said. “And water loss would be an issue. They wouldn't take our sewage facility … And so it just turned out to be a real difficult situation for us to kind of go along with.”
In fact, David doesn’t think there’s a problem with the water to begin with.
According to documents from the Fayette County Commission, David himself is not a customer of the Page-Kincaid district, in violation of state code. He did not respond to a request for comment about this.
David, who said he has volunteered for the board since it started in the 1970s, works for a nonprofit based in Kincaid.
The utility replaced one of three filters in August, after more and more customers began to complain about the color of the water.
David said problems then were due to nearby coal mining. The Fayette County Commission sued the Seminole West Virginia mining complex in March 2019, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in October, but engineers hired by Seminole and an attorney for the commission couldn’t back these claims.
David says that since then the water has been clean. When the utility issued a boil water advisory over Memorial Day weekend, David said it was because of alleged vandalism and theft.
The advisory was lifted the following week.
Fayette County commissioner Scalph has said water problems have been going on longer than David acknowledges.
“I do think it's unfortunate that we have failing systems,” she said. “And it's not just Fayette County, it's throughout the state and it's throughout the country. The infrastructure is just old and antiquated.”
Following the Public Service Commission’s announcement that it would investigate Page-Kincaid, county commissioners in an emergency meeting June 5 sought to remove the entire three-person board through filed petitions in circuit court.
Shockey works for the prosecutor’s office, which is filing petitions for the board members’ removal. But she said she is not involved in any matters related to Page-Kincaid board.
West Virginia American Water might still be able to take over the service area. Gov. Jim Justice signed a Senate Bill on March 25 that would give the Public Service Commission the authority to assist and order the acquisition of failing water utilities and sewer systems.
The customers are requesting a takeover, according to the Public Service Commission.
In a May 20 order announcing the investigation, the agency said it’s “imperative that Page-Kincaid move quickly to develop a plan to improve the quality of water and water service provided to Page-Kincaid customers.”
Advocates for clean water, including director Angie Rossier with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, says the need for clean water is heightened during a pandemic.
“All of the important guidelines we're hearing about, for hygiene and hand washing, I mean, those concerns elevate even more so,” Rossier said. “Because if we don't have access to safe water to keep up with hygiene and washing our hands, we're not only just in trouble because the water may be harmful to us, but we're not able to protect ourselves like we should be able to from a virus like COVID-19.”
A status conference is set for July 16 in Charleston. Due to the pandemic, the Public Service Commission is not accepting oral complaints, but will livestream the meeting for the public.
The PSC says it will consider complaints filed online, or mailed to the PSC’s Executive Secretary Connie Graley at 201 Brooks Street in Charleston, WV, 25301.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.