State Government

MUB, PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division respond to PSC fire hydrant report recommendations

MORGANTOWN – Morgantown Utility Board and the Public Service Commission’s Consumer Advocate Division this week responded to a PSC staff report on statewide fire hydrant safety – offering some agreement, some disagreement and some suggestions of their own.

The PSC staff report said not enough utilities are testing the water flow through their systems and devices. It also said a number of the hydrants are aging and ought to be replaced on a faster cycle.

The report suggested the creation of a 10-year Hydrant Replacement Grant program, with a legislative appropriation of $70 million. The cost estimate includes inspection of 36,026 hydrants at $3.6 million; replacement of 4,736 hydrants at $4.74 million; additional project costs of $9.47 million; and a 15% contingency fund of $9.1 million.

MUB told the PSC it opposes staff’s “age only” standard for replacing hydrants. It’s unlikely $70 million is enough money because every year during the 10-year replacement cycle, more hydrants will age out and need replacement. MUB, for example, now has 226 hydrants over 50 and 150 more will turn 50 during the 10 years.

“Compelling replacement of 5,300+ operational hydrants at an estimated cost of $70 million simply because the hydrants have reached a particular age is unnecessary,” MUB said. MUB urged the PSC to require replacement only if annual inspection determines the hydrants aren’t working.

MUB also asked, “How will the money be prioritized among water utilities? Will historically well-run water utilities such as MUB be eligible to receive the grant funds despite its low rates?”

MUB told the PSC it agrees that hydrants are essential to public safety, but reminded the PSC it has no jurisdiction to regulate them unless a water utility provides fire services. “It is questionable whether the recommendations set forth in the Final Joint Staff Memorandum are within the jurisdiction of the Commission to implement. … It appears that the regulatory processes recommended by staff are properly and solely within the province of municipalities, county commissions and the state Fire Commission.”

MUB employs a contractor, Strand Engineering, to use computer-based hydraulic modeling to calculate the capacity of hydrants. MUB told the PSC it has spent considerable amounts of ratepayer money to model the system and is now updating the model. The American Water Works Association says hydraulic modeling can be more accurate than physical testing.

So MUB also objected to the PSC staff recommendation to prohibit such modeling.

MUB told PSC, “The financial and operational burden of flow testing hydrants would constitute a significant unfunded mandate to water utilities.” MUB would have to test 250 per year. “Large water utilities such as MUB do not have the personnel necessary to test that many hydrants per year and, therefore, its ratepayers would ultimately absorb the cost of the significant operation and maintenance expenses related thereto.”

Physical testing also poses liability risks, MUB said, such as downstream flooding and property damage. Opening to maximum rate can create “dirty” water and low water pressure.

Also, the state Department of Environmental Protection requires utilities to dechlorinate water as it is released. But this requires a diffuser containing dechlorination tablets, which prevents flow measuring. “If the commission is going to require water utilities to violate the DEP’s dechlorination rule upwards of 10,000 times per year across the state, MUB submits that it is incumbent on the commission to obtain a blanket waiver of the de-chlorination rule from the DEP.”

All of these problems can be avoided with hydraulic modeling, MUB said.

MUB told The Dominion Post, “MUB and the Morgantown Fire Department regularly work in conjunction with testing of fire hydrants within Morgantown city limits. We work diligently to ensure that they meet the fire protection needs of our community. Any fire hydrant found damaged or inoperable is immediately repaired or replaced. … We welcome any formal requirements that help us meet MUB’s mission of protecting public safety and the environment. This mission is paramount in all we do.”

CAD comments

CAD echoed MUB’s comments about the age issue. “The age of a hydrant itself it not determinative of its adequacy. Many hydrants can be reliable and used for several decades, some as noted by the commission staff may be properly and reliably working after 100 years.”

Inadequate flow, CAD said, could be due to a problem with the hydrant, but may also stem from problems in the water system impeding flow to a hydrant. “But the CAD agrees that the establishment of proper routine inspection and flow testing is the first necessary step in maintaining reliable fire service to the public.”

Regarding the $70 million program, CAD asked, “Should only publicly owned utilities be eligible to apply for these grant monies? Should there be some kind of revenue threshold or revenue percentage threshold established to determine which entities should receive funding support, and which should not? What will be the criteria for who gets to access the money first?”

CAD said the staff did an excellent job of addressing the problem of inadequate hydrant testing. “However, it has very little discussion of the more long-term issue of how to address the failure of hydrants if there is inadequate water flow to the hydrant to support fire suppression. While it is important to ensure all fire hydrants are operational, it does very little good if there are inadequate flows to support fire suppression to a working hydrant.”