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Jefferson Co. water dispute resolved

June 30, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Lawyers representing Jefferson Utilities Inc. (JUI) and customers of three of its public water systems on Monday settled a three-year-old dispute involving complaints of poor service and water quality following day-long negotiations behind closed doors.

The settlement was accepted by John Carter, administrative law judge for the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

It calls for JUI, owner of Mountain Water Systems, to correct deficiencies in systems serving more than 300 customers in the Blue Ridge Mountain communities of Harpers Ferry Campsites, Keyes Ferry Acres and Westridge Hills.

The original complaint to the PSC was filed June 22, 2006, by Citizens of the Blue Ridge Act (COBRA), a nonprofit organization representing customers in all three communities, plus three individuals from those communities. It was amended Dec. 23, 2008.

The complaint sought relief in nine areas, including failure to operate and maintain the systems, make improvements, comply with public health rules and install water meters for 193 customers. The complaint also lists inadequate pressure and cloudy water.

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Carter opened the hearing by asking lawyers representing both parties to try to settle the case before he would begin hearing testimony. The hearing, held in the basement of the Charles Town Library, would have lasted three days, lawyers said.

"Get together and try to work this out," Carter told the lawyers. He gave them a half-hour at first and continued to extend the time throughout the day. The agreement was signed shortly after 5 p.m.

The plaintiffs were represented by Attorney Ruth McQuade. Attorney E. Dandridge McDonald of Steptoe & Johnson of Charleston, W.Va., represented Lee Snyder, owner of JUI.

Lawyers also represented the Jefferson County Commission and the Jefferson County Public Service District.

McQuade was the sole woman among the 17 men in the hearing room, including attorneys, PSC officials, JUI staffers and plaintiffs.

According to the settlement, JUI will comply with all public health rules, complete installation of the water meters, maintain records of customer complaints, notify customers when a water bill reflects unusual usage, develop a water sample and analysis plan and report progress to the PSC on capital improvements.

JUI and the Jefferson County Public Service District recently entered into a public/private venture to rebuild the mountain water systems at a cost pegged at $10 million.

The settlement calls for COBRA  to support the project.

Also, according to the settlement, COBRA will withdraw its complaint and the case against JUI will be dismissed without prejudice.

 McDonald, in remarks to Judge Carter after the agreement was signed, said the case against JUI has been an impediment to progress for all parties and has placed an "enormous strain on JUI and its resources with more than $100,000 already spent fighting the complaint." Continued litigation would drain JUI's resources further and jeopardize any money the company could put into the joint venture with the Jefferson County PSD to rebuild the system, he said.

McQuade, in her comments before Carter, said that since 2000, JUI has failed to provide safe, adequate and continued service to the its customers on the mountain. "This is a legitimate complaint. We are pleased with the agreement and the partnership," she said.

Members of the Jefferson County Commission and the local public service district also have to sign the settlement, lawyers said.

Snyder said after the hearing that in the past year he has invested about $500,000 in the system and only received about $150,000 in revenue.

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