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Liberty files water crisis response to state PSC

by I.C. Murrell | February 26, 2021 at 4:25 a.m.
FILE - Liberty Utilities (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

Liberty Utilities outlined its response to the ongoing water pressure and line break crisis hampering Pine Bluff in a 104-page document the Arkansas Public Service Commission released Thursday.

The commission on Tuesday announced it was investigating the water utility's preparedness for and reaction to the problems. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would begin an investigation of her own. Liberty's response was released to the public just before the noon Thursday deadline Liberty was given to respond.

The first 10 pages detail Liberty's response, with the others being the company's water emergency operations and management plans Liberty submitted along with a sworn affidavit from Liberty water and gas Vice President Mike Beatty.

Listed as Liberty-Pine Bluff Water throughout the report, the utility wrote to the commission that on Feb. 18, it began to detect, through monitoring equipment at its plants, "significant increased demand resulting in falling water pressure, which was adversely impacting customers in Pine Bluff." Operators began investigating the causes, Liberty reported, adding that extreme weather conditions from the Feb. 14-17 snowstorm "hampered those efforts."

An internal emergency operations meeting was called at 4 p.m. that day and its Emergency Management Plan was initiated, Liberty told investigators. The utility's community liaison "began outreach to community and business leaders the same date," and information was released through local media, on Liberty's website and through direct emails to customers who had those addresses on file with the company, according to the report.

The utility called an emergency teleconference last Saturday with community leaders including Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, police and fire chiefs, Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson, representatives from Jefferson Regional Medical Center, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College, Tyson Foods and Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility. A consulting firm, McClelland Consulting Engineers, was called in regarding additional leak detection devices, but those devices "were not able to be utilized at the time due to the amount of snow accumulation on the ground," according to the report.

During an in-person meeting at Liberty's offices Sunday evening, community leaders and other citizens expressed their consternation to Beatty over the time it took the utility to notify the community.

Since then other community leaders, including Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson, have praised Liberty for working with them and Pine Bluff Wastewater Utility to find any leaks resulting from the weather event and increase water pressure to complexes such as Jefferson Regional Medical Center and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Liberty reported to the Public Service Commission that 51 members of its operations team from California, Arizona and Missouri have come to Pine Bluff to find leaks and breaks and have counted 252 of those faults found on residential and commercial customer premises. The water meter is shut off when each fault is reported, Liberty added, allowing the customer to make repairs.

In addition, 22 leaks or breaks have been found and repaired on the Liberty-Pine Bluff Water system, according to the report.

Liberty responded at length to five different requests from the Commission, including: steps taken to identify leaks; the cause of the leaks; loss of water pressure or service; procedures or steps in place to identity the leaks or their case; plan to "restore reasonable, safe, adequate, and sufficient service to its customers in the Pine Bluff area;" and provision for public viewing of the emergency operations plan and emergency communications plan.

Beatty said earlier this week in response to a question from Mayor Washington that the emergency operations plan did not address snowstorms but that it would be updated.

Lawrence E. Chisenhall Jr. of the Barber Law Firm in Little Rock and Kenneth A. Tillotson, director of legal services for Liberty's Central Region, are representing the utility.


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