Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded

When Ric Cavender’s house caught fire on May 5 in the Edgewood neighborhood of Charleston, the capital city’s fire department was on the scene within minutes to knock down the blaze. 

However, when firefighters hooked up to the hydrants in the area – literally yards down the street from the home – they found not one, not two, but three didn’t work, according to a lawsuit. 

While Cavender saw his earthly possessions burn up, he also lost a best friend: Duke, the family dog. 

Now, state regulators are trying to see if Cavender’s tragedy is a warning of a bigger problem plaguing communities. On June 30, the West Virginia Public Service Commission launched a statewide investigation into the number of working fire hydrants, but it turns out that’s easier said than done.

More than a week after the initial deadline, a little more than half of the state’s 301 water districts have responded.  

Now, regulators have extended the deadline to Aug. 25, threatening up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines for anyone who defies it. Most of the largest systems have submitted responses, with the notable exception of the Berkeley County Public Service Water District, which serves one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. 

As hydrant data trickles in, West Virginia ranks among worst states for fire deaths 

Fire protection is a huge problem in West Virginia; the state was ranked second in the nation from 2015-2019 in fire deaths per capita, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2022, at least 19 West Virginians died in house fires — the death rate of house fires is roughly double that than the rest of the nation, according to FEMA. 

But Paul Calamita, the general counsel for the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, said the data requests are a bit overwhelming for small water districts, who he said might have to hire consultants to figure it out. He said the less than a month turnaround for data was an arbitrary timeline that didn’t give enough time for districts to respond. 

“We just think this move is tone deaf and it’s just the PSC seeing how quickly they can make people jump,” Calamita said. 

This empty lot is where Ric Cavender’s house once stood. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

The association sent a letter asking for an extension for large systems (defined as serving 10,000 or more residents) until Sept. 15 to submit, followed by mid-sized systems submitting in November and small systems at the end of the year, Calamita said. 

In its extension order, the PSC stated information on fire hydrants are already supposed to be filed by the water utilities to the commission in an annual report. Those reports describe each  system’s inventory in broad strokes, like the number of fire hydrants and their size and capability. 

But the current 27-question survey sent to water districts dives deeper, asking questions about the age of the system, details on inspections and problems relating to the hydrants. 

A PSC spokesman declined to state whether the timeline has caused a disparity in information, citing its Aug. 7 order as “speaking for itself.”

However, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, whose Joint Standing Committee on Technology and Infrastructure heard PSC testimony on the issue earlier this week, said he doesn’t think it will be an issue. 

“We’re working on a very aggressive time frame, but I wouldn’t view this as the end of our fact gathering process,” Linville said. Linville said the investigation isn’t about “finger pointing” at the water districts, but a fact-finding mission to inform lawmakers come the January 2024 regular session. 

Meanwhile, up on Chester Road in Charleston, Matt McKinney tinkers in his garage, directly across the street from the now-vacant lot where Cavender’s house once stood. 

He said on the night of the fire, his newborn woke him up – when he walked down stairs to fix a bottle, he saw the flashing red lights of the engines and the smoking billowing in the street. In the weeks following the blaze, McKinney said he saw West Virginia American Water trucks come and go in the neighborhood; he even saw workers dig up a line. 

“It’s definitely scary that it happened,” he said. 

Down the street stand two fire hydrants — one looks relatively new, while the other has an orange placard hanging off it stating, “not in service.”  A West Virginia American water spokeswoman said the broken one is being kept out of service due to an ongoing lawsuit over the fire. 

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.