Although it was called to discuss proposed rate hikes for Pennsylvania American Water customers, not one person complained about the jump in their monthly bill. Instead, the public hearing held at the Washington County Fairgrounds meeting room in Chartiers Township Tuesday afternoon became an open indictment of the dangers of relying on well water.
“We’re not a third-world country,” said Dan Greene of Avella. “We’re a world power. Everybody here should have water.”
Conducting the hearing on behalf of the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, Administrative Law Judge Jeff Watson listened to testimony from about 20 individuals. Attorneys from Pennsylvania American Water, the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement and the Office of Consumer Advocacy were also present.
Almost all of the people whom spoke during the hearing are currently without access to public water. Many of them described a myriad of problems that were associated with relying on well water – from fears from hydraulic fracturing to fire concerns to high tap-in costs.
Paula Ferry of Washington spoke of her family’s desire for “what we call the promise land of clean, abundant water that public water would provide.”
Ferry said she had to buy bottled drinking water due to quality concerns, costing her about $15 per week. She also worried about fire protection because the closest hydrant was over 2,600 feet away from her home.
Chief Stanley “Stush” Sadowski, Sr., of the Cecil Township No. 1 Volunteer Fire Department said many homes in the township were without access to emergency hydrant water, including his.
“My barn got hit by lightning,” Sadowski said. “By the time we got there with the two trucks – they hold 750 gallons of water each – it burned to the ground.”
Sadowski said any home further than 2,500 feet from a hydrant would need three tanker trucks to fight a fire. Even then, firefighters would have to take a more defensive role than they would normally take in combatting the blaze, meaning greater damage was likely.
Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled following a proposed a rate increase of 10.1 percent for customers of the utility company in June. The increase would raise about $58.6 million in funds for the company while increasing the average customer’s bill by $6.12 per month.
Officials said the proposed rate increase would help the company recover costs from $731 million in system improvements made between 2012 and 2014, about $215 taking place in Allegheny and Washington counties. The money would also help pay for future construction of new treatment facilities, renovation to existing plants and the new water lines.
Many of those gathered hoped new lines would run to their properties. Some said they had been happy with private wells in the past, but now worried about the increase natural gas extraction in the area.
“Prior to the wells being built… we were reluctant to get public water,” said Dawn Fiori of McDonald. “But now that the industry is established we do not have a choice.”
Kim Staubb said eight well pads and the Carter impoundment flow-back pond were located on land adjacent to her home in Mt. Pleasant.
“In the last three years, the water has been compromised by gas drilling,” Staubb said. “We are surrounded by wells.”
She said the open impoundment pond poses a constant threat to her drinking supply.
“I fear that at any time the water surface would be compromised,” Staubb said. “If our water source becomes contaminated there is no other source.”
Avella resident James Piatt’s water quality concerns did not relate to the gas industry, but rather exposure to deadly bacteria.
“Last fall I had Legionnaires’ disease,” Piatt said. “I believed I got it from” the Pittsburgh Veterans’ hospital, “but they came out and tested my water and said I had legionella in my water.”
Most of the residents who spoke mentioned high costs of tap-in fees as the main impediment to them getting service. Depending on which township they lived in and how remote their home was, those costs varied from $2,500 to nearly $70,000 for individual homes and up to $1.2 million for one cluster of neighbors.
Tuesday’s meeting was the second of seven scheduled to take place in areas where Pennsylvania American’s 641,000 water and 17,000 wastewater customers reside. But judging from the testimony of those attending the Washington County hearing, it was those hoping to become customers who had the most to say.
“I hate to think that our obituary would say two elderly people died because they were trying to survive without water in today’s world,” said Rodell Lewis, 86, who lives with her husband on Lewis Drive in Washington.
“We need water really, really bad.”