The perils of privatization: Aqua NC customers score dubious win

A reduction in rate increases for nasty water is hardly a victory:

Homeowners tired of brown drinking water were celebrating Friday night after learning that the North Carolina Utilities Commission denied Aqua North Carolina's request for an 8 percent increase in rates. Aqua customers packed a rate hearing in June to complain to the Utilities Commission about the brown water that stains their clothes, sinks and bathtubs.

The commission apparently heard them and approved an average increase of 2.5 percent. "I don't mind paying it if the water's clean. When the water's not clean, you get upset about paying a premium and still having dirty water coming through your tap," Aqua customer Owen Cavanaugh said.

Once again, the Utilities Commission has failed in its most basic responsibility: To ensure that utility operators are providing a safe and equitable service to their ratepayers. Those of you who are relatively new to the environmental watchdog club may be unfamiliar with this company, but this heinously expensive brown water thing has been going on for a long time. Lisa Sorg wrote this for the Indy five years ago:

At Juli Williams' house, you have just three seconds to wet your toothbrush. A shower can last no more than 10 minutes. The dishwasher may be operated only with permission.

Even with these austerity measures, Williams' monthly water and sewer bill runs as high as $423, more than most car payments. And for that money, Williams says, the bathtub is stained brown from water that comes from community wells operated by Aqua North Carolina.

"Our neighborhood has been fighting Aqua for years," says Williams, who lives with her husband and three children in Mallard Crossing, a 200-home subdivision in eastern Wake County.

Aqua North Carolina, which owns 800 water and/or sewer systems statewide, is a subsidiary of one of the nation's largest private water utilities, Aqua America. While the company touts its "well-deserved reputation for rehabilitating water and wastewater facilities" to meet its "high performance standards," many of its North Carolina customers dispute that claim.

Just for comparison: My water/sewer bill is about $33 per month. Granted, I am single and live alone, and don't water the grass I don't have, but I have friends with large families and their bills are usually in the $70-$80 range. We are hooked into our neighbor city's system (Burlington), and every time some local genius brings up the idea of starting our own system or "contracting" it out, I have to resist the urge to smack them upside the head.

Back to the OP and the cause of the brown water:

Cavanaugh, like thousands of others in northern Wake County, are on the Bayleaf water system, which has been plagued by high levels of iron and manganese that can discolor the water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans next year to re-evaluate the drinking water standard for manganese, studies that show high levels of manganese can effect the central nervous system, posing a higher risk to children, the elderly and pregnant women.

If the EPA declares manganese a primary drinking water contaminant, Aqua could be forced to remove it from the water.

Aqua officials announced Thursday that they have already installed 11 filter systems in Wake, Johnston and Gaston counties to scrub iron and manganese from the water.

But those filter systems need to be replaced frequently, something Aqua NC has already failed to do on numerous occasions.

Honestly, if the NCUC and DEQ can't or won't properly regulate Aqua NC, and continue to allow them to charge exorbitant sums for substandard quality water, the Attorney General really needs to step in. Because if that's not some form of consumer fraud, I don't know what is.

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