Hundreds of West Virginia residents gathered over the weekend to protest their water bill charges since the January 9 chemical spill that left thousands of homes with contaminated water.
The spill contaminated the Elk River with 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a chemical mixture used in the coal production process. MCHM is toxic if ingested. The spill left 300,000 West Virginians with poisonous brown liquorice-scented water.
West Virginia American Water, the water company presiding over the region, told customers they would receive either a 1,000 or 2,000 gallon credit on their next bill. The credit is meant to make up for the estimated 500-1,000 gallons it takes residents to flush out their homes' piping systems.
Not only did many residents not receive the credit, they also found themselves billed for hundreds of gallons of water they say were never used.
Charleston resident Patrick Lawson received a bill on Friday saying he used 600 gallons of water in the past six days. Lawson said this is impossible, given that he has barely used any water at all since the spill.
“They are claiming I have used 600 gallons in the past 6 days, and that I don’t have any leaks,” he said. “This also means my sewage bill will go up, due to it being figured by your water usage. It is becoming painfully obvious that I’m in a no-win situation, if I don’t pay the bill they shut off my water. They leave the burden of proof on the homeowner.”
The West Virginia Citizen Action Group is also accusing West Virginia American Water of charging it for water it never used. The group’s water bill last January was for 1,700 gallons. This January, it was billed for 1,800 gallons. Director Brooke Drake says this simply isn’t possible – the group has avoided using its water after state officials said even the recommended flushes might not work.
“They can’t tell us we’ve been using that much water,” Drake said.
Dissatisfied customers got back at their water company by giving them a taste of their own medicine: a bill.
During a Saturday protest, hundreds of residents billed West Virginia American Water for expenses they’ve been forced to pay since the spill. The expenses include the cost of bottled water they’ve had to buy, transportation costs to buy the water, and earnings lost while businesses were closed because of the spill.
On Thursday, delegate Larry Faircloth asked West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre about his company’s decision to bill customers for water used since contamination.
"Have you ever gone to a restaurant and gotten a bad meal and complained about it?" Faircloth asked. "They don't give you a credit, you typically don't have to pay for it. Do you really believe it's fair to bill your customers?"