Ratepayers to shoulder costs of fire hydrant testing, upgrades

The Fire Hydrant Task Force — operating under the state Public Service Commission — met for the first time Friday. (Leann Ray | West Virginia Watch)

Due to a lack of funding from the Legislature, the costs for upgrading, testing and potentially replacing hundreds of fire hydrants in the state may fall on the backs of utility customers, officials said during a task force meeting on Friday.

The Fire Hydrant Task Force — operating under the state Public Service Commission — met for the first time Friday and will have until June 30 to present recommended rules to the PSC outlining new requirements for maintaining fire hydrants. The new rules come after a general investigation was opened into the state’s fire hydrants last year when a house burned down on Charleston’s West Side after firefighters could not get enough water pressure at three separate hydrants in the area.

During the regular session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring the PSC to create and implement the rules.

Not included in that legislation, however, was funding to help with the testing and potential replacement of the hydrants. Prior to the start of the Legislative session, PSC officials requested approval for $70 million to put toward a hydrant replacement program, but their requests went unanswered.

Now, the costs — which are not final and could change as more information is received about the state’s hydrants — will be borne by public utilities, likely through rate increases on customers over time.

“The [PSC] requested the Legislature to consider funding [to bring all hydrants up to date], but we didn’t get the funding. So that’s the end of that,” said Jonathan Fowler, an engineer with the PSC. “The cost to apply these rules will be billed into rates moving forward.”

West Virginians, on average, already pay some of the highest water utility rates in the country. As of 2019, residents paid the highest average water bill than any other state, at about $91 per a month, according to data from the National Association of Water Companies. 

Those rates — with or without the added costs for hydrant upgrades — will likely increase in coming years as the state’s water infrastructure continues to age and a majority of funding for upgrades comes through burdensome, often high-interest loans instead of grants. 

Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, advocated for the legislation to apply the rules during session and attended Friday’s meeting. He told members of the task force that his office was ready to help with the implementation and creation of the rules in any way possible and hinted that money could be made available in the future for the project, but did not offer any specific details.

“Anyway you could get us funding?” Fowler asked Linville.

“We’ve actually got some funding possibly, we can chat about that later,” Linville responded.

The Legislature is likely to reconvene next month for a special session focused on allocating funding to numerous programs and amend the previously passed state budget for fiscal year 2025. There is a possibility but no guarantee that funding for the PSC could be brought up during that session.

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