The water that Tennessee American Water Company (TAWC) is attempting to throw in the faces of ratepayers is the same water customers had to go without for days last fall.
The utility, in work to upgrade its infrastructure last September, broke a water main, leaving about 35,000 customers without water during one of the hottest and driest periods of the year. And its explanations about the break to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and other officials at the time and since have lacked relevant detail.
Moreover, in recent filings, TAWC requested to pass along to customers the costs associated with bottled water and water trucks it supplied during the outage. However, after objections by a representative of the Consumer Advocate Unit of the state Attorney General's Office, an attorney who filed a class action suit against the utility and Berke, a deal has been reached to put that request on hold.
Whether ratepayers ultimately will have to shoulder the added costs remains to be seen. They shouldn't, or at least they should not bear the costs associated with the break itself, shouldn't be. The private company's investment in its infrastructure is another matter. Such costs are frequently passed along to customers.
What is particularly galling is that the attempt to add the expenses to customers' tabs has come even though the water utility has been reticent about supplying information about the break.
When the company broke its silence last September, after some Chattanoogans had been without water for three days, it pronounced the break "the largest main break and resulting service interruption in recent history." And it said the evaluation process "will take time to conclude."
Thirsty, dusty city residents then voiced a collective " and? ," but nothing was forthcoming. And they're still waiting.
David Dittemore of the state Attorney General's office said "despite our best efforts through discovery" and despite saying the "evaluation of the water main break was a priority," TAWC "has provided little information regarding the cause of the outage."
Water company officials cite the analysis being performed by an independent third party and the pending class action lawsuit as reasons for the lack of explanation, but Dittemore said in his testimony to the Tennessee Public Utility Commission that "sensitive information may be provided to regulators under seal for appropriate consideration in regulatory proceedings."
The Tennessee Public Utility Commission must approve any changes to TAWC's capital costs, which can then be passed on in rate changes. The company was hoping to defray expenses from $41,605 in bottled water, $63,430 in drinking water and $5,360 in legal services. The agreement reached is that the costs associated with the main break will be deferred until the next capital cost recovery period.
We hope between now and then the company, especially given how little information that has shared on the break, rethinks the idea of passing on the costs to ratepayers.