DC Council considers bill to add new DC Water consumer protections

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In the wake of last month’s boil water advisory and complaints about inadequate notice about the warning, Ward 4 DC Council member Brandon Todd is touting proposed DC Water consumer protection legislation as an effective way to address the concerns of DC Water and Sewer Authority consumers.

The legislation — the subject of a July 12 public hearing — would require DC Water to submit an annual report to the DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser, detailing consumer complaints. The bill, introduced in January by Todd and six colleagues, would also give the Office of the People’s Counsel authority to represent residents who file water complaints — a step Todd says is necessary in order to ensure that DC Water customers are treated fairly.

“This legislation would bring the same level of accountability to DC Water that exists for other utilities in the District of Columbia,” Todd said in a January press release. “As I continue to hear from a number of residents with DC Water-related concerns, we must grant the Office of the People’s Counsel the authority they need to advocate for the best interests of Washingtonians.”

Water fountains such as this one at the National Zoo were unavailable to the public on July 13 during the boil water advisory that affected much of Northwest and Northeast, Complaints about public notice that day could factor into the DC Council’s consideration of a new consumer protection bill that would give the Office of the People’s Counsel a role in handling complaints about DC Water. (Photo by Chris Kain)

In a strange coincidence of timing, residents, environmental advocates and DC Water officials — just a few hours before the July 12 incident that led to the boil water alert testified on the bill at a public hearing led by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee of Transportation and Environment.

Sara Green, a 43-year resident of Takoma Park and a former advisory neighborhood commissioner, detailed how DC Water had accidentally withdrawn thousands of dollars from her bank account via auto pay.

“For years, we never had a problem with [the system], but $11,029.41 disappeared from our account on June 19, and it was just gone,” Green said at the hearing. “DC Water was sympathetic, but they said it was ‘probably a reading error,’ and there was no urgency. It took a week [before] they wired the money back, minus some money for our water bill. We were lucky in the sense that we had other money in our account, and we were not taken without the ability to buy groceries.”

If the legislation is approved, customers such as Green would be able to enlist the Office of the People’s Counsel to help solve their issues with DC Water.

Larry Martin, chair of the Clean Water Committee for the DC chapter of the Sierra Club, also backed the bill at the hearing. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest environmental advocacy group.

“The act is a needed initiative to bring some measure of oversight to the water utility, which operates under its own appointed board with no other oversight other than this council committee,” said Martin. “OPC is the logical place to place oversight on behalf of ratepayers.”

Martin also stressed the need for additional focus on DC Water’s environmental stewardship.

“We would hope that with the passage of this act, OPC could take a leadership role in helping to sort out equity and environmental justice issues for the protection of DC’s surface waters,” said Martin.  

But the scope of the Office of the People’s Counsel involvement is the subject of debate. David Gadis, CEO and general manager of DC Water, suggested that the proposed legislation be modified so that it doesn’t conflict with current regulations governing the billing process, which specify that DC Water is the entity that adjudicates any complaints.

“We feel strongly that some of the elements of the bill are based on assumptions that something is broken with the bill dispute, administration hearing or appeals process,” Gadis said. He emphasized that the DC Water-related responsibilities of the Office of the People’s Counsel work should focus mainly on billing disputes. He pushed back against the idea that problems are pervasive, however: In fiscal year 2017, 143 complaints arose out of the 1.8 million bills issued by DC Water, Gadis said.

In its testimony, the Office of the People’s Counsel noted that it has received calls for many years from DC residents complaining about their water bills — inquiries that it now refers to DC Water.

“District consumers are frustrated, confused, angry and uncertain of their legal rights when faced with the prospect of challenging a disputed water bill,” said Sandra Mattavous-Frye, who was appointed in 2015 for a second term as head of the Office of the People’s Counsel.

OPC serves as an advocate for DC consumers of natural gas, electric and telephone services by helping ensure regulated utility companies resolve individual complaints and by representing consumer interests in rate proceedings before the DC Public Service Commission. At last month’s hearing, Mattavous-Frye stressed that congressionally imposed limitations mean that her office would have a more limited role in terms of DC Water, an independent governmental entity of the DC government with a separate legal existence. For instance, she said, the OPC lawyers would not have access to records and studies that might aid their case during public hearings on proposed rate changes, which are decided by DC Water’s own board of directors.

“While … the proposed legislation would give OPC access to certain DC Water records, we need clarification of whether that includes the data and analyses underlying a proposed rate change,” said Mattavous-Frye. “The office’s ability to change DC Water rates will be limited, at best.”

However, Mattavous-Frye ultimately championed the act, saying it would help consumers in their interactions with DC Water.

“OPC’s mission is to ‘advocate, protect and educate.’ I believe we can apply these principles to our DC Water involvement,” said Mattavous-Frye.

A day after the hearing, DC Water issued a boil water advisory that initially affected a broad swath of Northeast and Northwest. The night of July 12, workers found an open valve at the Bryant Street Pumping Station, which meant a drop in water pressure and the risk of contamination of the water supply. DC Water advised residents in the affected areas to boil their water as a precautionary measure, although the zone shrank as officials learned more about the situation. In the meantime, DC officials closed swimming pools and warned against using drinking fountains in much of the city.

The advisory was fully lifted July 15, but officials at DC Water and the city’s emergency management agency drew criticism for inadequate outreach and notification while the advisory was in effect, a point raised by Cheh in a July 13 letter to Gadis. Critics were upset that officials opted not to utilize emergency notification procedures to ensure broad, immediate public awareness, instead relying on Twitter posts, media reports and texts and emails to the people who had subscribed to the AlertDC system.

“Many of my constituents told me they learned of the alert inadvertently, and in many cases after they and their children had consumed tap water,” Cheh wrote. “All of this has caused extreme anxiety among residents and compels further inquiry into how this occurred and was handled.”

In a response to Cheh’s letter, Gadis wrote that DC Water followed its protocol for outreach, although notice was delayed while officials waited for a response from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He noted that the timing of the incident late at night complicated efforts to contact the public.

“Reaching out to constituents after they have all gone to bed poses some unique obstacles,” he wrote. “This did not prevent us from moving ahead with the boil alert and the broad notification that we pursued but it obviously was a factor in terms of our ability to alert a wide segment of the population.”

Though neither Cheh nor Gadis brought up the consumer legislation, Todd said in an interview that he is even more confident of the necessity of the legislation after the advisory.

“Enhanced accountability will only help DC Water deliver better services to their customers,” he said.

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