CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The presidents of West Virginia American Water Company and Mountaineer Gas both told state lawmakers Monday there was no early indication that their lines along Madison Street on Charleston’s West Side were going to break on Nov. 10.
That break sent thousands of gallons of water through 46 miles of Mountaineer Gas’ distribution system and caused gas service to be disrupted for 1,500 customers for up to two weeks and in some cases longer.
Members of a legislative interim committee were trying to find out Monday how and why the situation happened. Many of their questions remain unanswered.
No early indication
Both West Virginia American Water President Robert Burton and Mountaineers Gas President David Lokant said their monitoring systems showed no signs of problems.
Burton said the line that broke was checked just hours before the Nov. 10 break.
“The nearest monitoring point to this leak was about a block away and that monitoring did not trigger a leak detection alert in the days before or the evening before the leak,” Burton said. “Those are the facts that West Virginia American Water knows.”
Meanwhile, Lokant said his company recently completed a required three-year leak survey that included the West Side.
“We had completed it in October 2023 and so we had went through that area previously and no leaks were found in that area,” Lokant said.
The age of the lines
Burton said the 8-inch water main was installed in 1989, young by national water main standards. He said the main was in good condition with no history of leaks, repairs or customer issues dating back to the latest records the company has that began in 2009. Burton said the life expectancy of that type of line is 80 to 100 years.
The water pressure on the line was well within normal operating ranges, Burton said.
Lokant said the Mountaineer Gas bare steel 3-inch line was installed in 1917. He said it was a low pressure system line.
West Virginia American received its first call of a possible problem at 1:50 p.m. on Nov. 10. It confirmed the leak and had a crew on scene to make repairs by 5:30 p.m. Repairs were made by the early morning hours of Nov. 11 and then Mountaineer Gas crews moved into the hole to repair its line.
The hole was backfilled and has since been covered with concrete. Lokant said gas company crews did not remove the damaged section of the line. He said it was clamped and repaired which is generally how ruptures are handled.
Mountaineer Gas gets calls
Lokant said Mountaineer Gas began receiving calls the evening of Nov. 10 from its customers about not having gas service. He said the first call came from Papa John’s on Patrick Street. He said Mountaineer Gas doesn’t have an emergency alert system like other utilities. He said their emergency alert is going door-to-door and that’s what they began to do that weekend.
Lokant said they didn’t know initially how widespread the damage was.
“We did not know how far the water would have traveled. Then we had to start scouring the areas and that’s where we had to go house to house to see how far–when we pulled a meter was there gas or not gas,” Lokant said. “We found water everywhere.”
More questions than answers
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said it was good to get both presidents before lawmakers.
“I think we have a long way to go to get to the bottom of this but I think this was an important first step,” Pushkin said. “I also think it’s important to answer questions from elected representatives of the people.”
Pushkin, who lives on the West Side and had damage from the outage, said he was disappointed that neither Burton nor Lokant were placed under oath before giving their testimony.
He added he still has questions why it took Mountaineer Gas so long to alert its customers.
Both Burton and Lokant said their companies will continue to cooperate with a state Public Service Commission general investigation.
Burton said his company has been the subject of finger pointing which he said isn’t good for discovering the truth.
“Until there’s a full investigation, prematurely declaring what caused this incident will not be helpful to prevent such an event in the future,” Burton said. “That type of finger pointing must stop today so we all get it right for the customers impacted.”
Mountaineer Gas has blamed West Virginia American for boring a hole in its line.
Burton said more than 200 customers have inquired about the company’s offering of paying up to $2,000 in damages from the natural gas outage. He said 26 checks have been written for an average of $1,600.
“These payments are prompt, not reduced by the fees of plaintiffs’ lawyers and reasonable,” Burton said. “The claims are related to a gas outage not to a water outage and we are asking customers for partial release of the claims we are addressing,” Burton said.
Lokant said 1,500 of the company’s 2,100 customers on the West Side were impacted by water through their gas lines. He said the company is still attempting to make contact with 40 customers who they haven’t been able to catch home.
Mountaineer Gas is currently contracting with 30 HVAC and plumbing crews to finish appliance repairs and replacements for approximately 125 customers.
The company has made a $75 credit on the latest gas bill of each of its customers in the impacted area.
The PSC investigation is in its early stages and both utilities have been asked to provide detailed information as part of the probe.
There have been at least two class-action lawsuits filed in connection with the outage.
“We all know there’s a class-action suit. Both of these utilities are going to be in court. I believe they are suing each other. I believe a lot more information is going to come out,” Pushkin said.