Utilities Inc., not customers, should pay

June 24, 2013 

I read this week’s Fort Mill Times article, “Lots of rain, but no new Tega Cay sewage spills,” with great interest, and I am thrilled that this month’s rain has not resulted in more sewage overflows in Tega Cay or into Lake Wylie!

Do I think that this means Utilities Inc/Tega Cay Water Service has the system “in good shape?” Not for a minute.

After several rainfalls June 7-19, Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council members photographed sewage being pumped from wastewater treatment plants into the many pumper trucks that area residents are now accustomed to seeing rolling up and down our streets. While this is better than contaminating the lake, and I am grateful for every bit of improvement, let’s be real: if UI/TCWS needs pumper trucks to offload sewage from the treatment facilities, the system may be somewhere closer to “250,000 gallons of sewage in the lake” than it is to “in good shape.”

UI/TCWS has sent several emails out over the past few months about heavy rains and inflow/infiltration being the cause of this year’s sewage overflows (SSOs). Though it was a wet spring, the truth is that only nine of the 22 SSOs this year were attributed to rains. The other 13 were caused by blocked lines, tree roots and equipment malfunction, per DHEC reporting.

So lots of spills. And big spills.

What could be worse?

Surely UI/TCWS is already planning its next rate increase. Tega Cay residents know this story well: UI/TCWS talks up its “significant capital expenditures” to resolve the sewage spill problems, and files a Request for Rate Increase, citing its need to recover those expenses. Nothing is filed yet, but there are rumblings from the ground, and (if I were a bettin’ person) I’d put big money on UI/TCWS submitting just such a request, using 2013 as the “test year” upon which its rate increase will be based.

Could UI/TCWS really have the gall to increase rates again? The company received significant rate hikes in 2006, 2010, and 2013, yet the problems continue with inflow and infiltration (outside water getting into the sewer system, which is the cause of the largest spills this year). The company received a huge increase in January 2013 in what seems a massive failure on the part of the Public Service Commission which gave UI/TCWS a pass on its unacceptable service, environmental, health and safety disregard, and regulatory violations. (In fact, UI/TCWS is currently operating under a Consent Order – which is the DHEC equivalent to being on probation).

Maybe the PSC wasn’t aware of the ongoing problem? Actually, there’s a long, documented history of complaints and violations. The PSC Commissioners noted their concerns about Inflow and Infiltration over a period of years – including this 2010 Order: “The Commission agrees that excessive inflow and infiltration is a problem which could have a direct adverse impact on customers…” and instructing UI/TCWS to “address the issue fully in the next rate proceeding before this Commission.” [Order 2010-557]

So how did UI/TCWS address the issue in the next rate proceeding? At the January 2013 hearing, company officials testified to ’no major infiltration or inflow problem’. [Docket 2013-177-WS Testimony of Mac Mitchell]. No mention was made of the fact that WE WERE IN A DROUGHT IN 2011. Was UI talking about its system functionality, or just referring to the lack of major SSOs during a period of drought? Did the PSC or Office of Regulatory Staff check rainfall totals when determining if UI/TCWS had actually “fixed” the inflow/infiltration problems, or just take the company’s word for it before granting another increase?

For the record: annual rainfall in the Rate Increase “test year” of 2011 was only 1.36” – less than half of the 10 year average (2002-2012) of 2.61.

At what point will the Public Service Commission make the tough call to protect residents by demanding proper and adequate service, as required by S.C. law, before granting increases? Stating their concern is not enough. I know Utilities, Inc is a big player in South Carolina, but state regulatory agencies must hold this company -- which has a monopoly on our water and sewer service – accountable through actions, not just words.

We deserve that. And I’m not talking about “we” the customers of UI/TCWS, not just the citizens of Tega Cay – but anyone who swims or plays in Lake Wylie, visits or plays golf in Tega Cay, and anyone who drinks the water in our region, which is drawn from Lake Wylie – just across the river from these sewage spills!

The big question is this: Exactly WHO should pay for the repairs/maintenance and upgrades that have been made in May and June of 2013 to finally address the ongoing Inflow/Infiltration issue?

I say it should come from the pockets of UI/TCWS. We have lived with ever increasing rates, sewage spills into homes and yards, restricted use of our lake and golf course, noise and destruction in our community from the heavy equipment now being brought in, damage to the reputation of our City AND more than a quarter million gallons of sewage put into our lake in a four-month period.

We have paid enough.

Kelly Macaluso

Tega Cay

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