Opinion: The Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act

By Charlotte Lane, chair

West Virginia Public Service Committee

Last year the West Virginia State Legislature passed the Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act in order to ensure that as many West Virginians as possible have clean, reliable drinking water and sanitary sewer service.

Charlotte R. Lane

Many of the state’s smaller water and wastewater utility companies struggle with aging infrastructure that can no longer adequately meet customers’ needs.  Pipes crack, equipment wears out or breaks down and the repairs are expensive.  Most of these utilities serve a small customer base that can’t fund major repairs or improvements.

Another issue that plagues many systems is that their pipes were installed so long ago that there are no maps that show exactly where they are located.  This means that a cracked line or broken main can lose thousands of gallons of water before the utility workers can even find the leak, much less repair it.  The water being lost is water that the utility has already paid to treat, but it never makes it to the customers, so there is no way for the utility to recoup that investment.  Every drop of lost water is also money that is lost, which only exacerbates the financial problems of a struggling utility, compounding the troubles customers face.

The Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act offers a solution for water and wastewater utilities that can no longer afford to operate adequately.  The Legislature has directed the PSC to prepare an annual list of water and wastewater utilities that appear to be financially unstable.  Additionally, any interested person or entity may request that a utility be examined to determine if it is distressed or failing.  Our staff will review the pertinent financial data of those utilities and contact them to offer advice and assistance in resolving any issues that are contributing to the utility’s financial instability.

If the Commission determines that the utility is failing, it may order the acquisition of the utility by a nearby water or wastewater utility that is capable of providing proper service to the community.  Making such a determination is a rigorously detailed process.  The Commission must hold a public comment hearing and an evidentiary hearing in the affected area to give the community the opportunity to be heard before a determination can be made.

The goal of the Commission and the Legislature is that more small communities throughout the state gain access to reliable water and wastewater services.

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