PHOENIX — State regulators, apparently alarmed at what they heard from Pinal County residents this week, are taking action against a San Tan Valley water provider.
The Arizona Corporation Commission met Thursday to discuss the findings from the Johnson Utilities rate case hearings in San Tan Valley, which concluded Wednesday evening.
The commission voted unanimously to direct staff into an emergency mode to investigate the public health, billing and meter reading concerns brought to light by the public at the hearings, with a focus on the public safety issues and to recommend whether or not the commission should appoint an interim manager for Johnson Utilities.
“After the Flint, Michigan case, I got to meet with regulators and hear some of the details of what happened there," Commission Chairman Tom Forese said. “After hearing a number of stories from the public around children getting sick from the water, I’m concerned that if one more person gets sick then it is on our hands.”
Staff recommended sending an engineer out to inspect the water treatment plant and said that one could be sent out as soon as the following day. If substantive information was uncovered before the next scheduled meeting, Forese said he would be willing to call an emergency meeting to take immediate action.
Staff affirmed that the commission has the power to make a surprise inspection at any time and to collect samples.
The issues relating to public safety will be investigated separately and on a faster timescale than the rate case.
“I also have several notes of people who turned and spoke to the audience about retaliation. They were very proud to use their own name. ‘Here, take my picture, here I am, I’m not afraid of you,'" said Commissioner Andy Tobin. “I think that we need to add another piece to this conversation. When you have a public utility that folks are accusing of threatening if they speak out against you, that is another harrowing piece of what needs to be investigated."
The commission questioned the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Water Quality Division Director Trevor Baggiore on ADEQs investigation into the utility.
In response to commissioners' questions about testimony from residents testing their water and finding suspended waste solids, Baggiore said that as of the latest self-submitted tests by Johnson Utilities, the water was in compliance on both the E-coli and nitrate. But acknowledged the longterm history of violations.
They also discussed the need to investigate the pattern of hydrogen sulfide violations, and asked Baggiore about residents' charges that the monitor placement does not accurately measure the concentration of the gas being breathed by residents.
“I appreciate that feedback, I did not hear those comments," Baggiore said. "There was a method to the criteria. If there are concerns that those aren’t located correctly we would be happy to look at that."
He also said that ADEQ had contracted two technical experts to inspect the facility in response to odor on March 2 with representatives from Johnson Utilities.
“Knowing that they are in compliance according to today's standards and then hearing all of these accounts of groundwater and sink water with pictures ... we had a gentleman bring his filter in to show what his water filter looked like," Forese said. "We had countless people come in and talk about the $2,000 to $3,000 water filtration systems they have to put in and still not having adequate water after that process. There is something missing here."
The commission declined to take action against the utility at the meeting, citing concerns for due process, and directed staff to aggressively collect more information.
After the meeting, Pinal County Supervisor Mike Goodman expressed his hope that the San Tan community would continue with the level of personal face-to-face engagement in local issues that were on display at the hearing to push for solutions.
”Facebook is not the solution,” Goodman said. “These guys (ACC) are really moving forward, and that had a lot to do with the alarming things they heard yesterday. Our community came together and made themselves heard. Imagine what they can do if they continue with that effort.”