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Should York County residents pick up utility's tab for environmental violations?

Lake Wylie residents talk Carolina Water Service

Lake Wylie SC residents aren't interested in paying more for water and sewer service from Carolina Water Service.
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Lake Wylie SC residents aren't interested in paying more for water and sewer service from Carolina Water Service.

Water rates are going up in parts of York County, one state agency says, in order to pay legal fees after a utility company broke environmental laws with illegal discharges into waterways.

The South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff is asking the S.C. Public Service Commission to reconsider its recent decision allowing increased rates for Carolina Water Service customers. In May, the service commission allowed increases of between 13 percent and 24 percent for water and sewer, depending on area and service type.

The regulatory staff office filed a petition Wednesday, saying the service commission went with rates that Carolina Water didn't propose until after public hearings. The petition also said the service commission picked a rate "unsupported by the greater weight of evidence" that it should be lower and that it didn't account for Federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act impacts.

The petition also says the new rates will be used to pay almost $1 million in litigation costs for five legal actions.

One is the "contentious defense" of an action by the Congaree River Keeper, concerning illegal discharges by the utility into the Saluda River. The petition also mentions Lexington's condemnation of the I-20 wastewater system.

The petition states the increase "forces CWS's ratepayers to pay for the company's failure to comply with state and federal environmental laws."

"In addition to this clearly being unfair to ratepayers," the petition reads, "it is counter to the principle previously expressed by this commission, that the costs of the unsuccessful defense of a civil action by a public utility are not to be passed to the (utility's) ratepayers."

The petition says the rate increase puts "the entire cost of any litigation on the ratepayer," even when a court finds the utility has been operating illegally.

"The commission has given CWS, and all public utilities in this state, a blank check to deny and contest in court all charges, violations or lawsuits brought against the utility for even the most egregious acts," reads the petition.

The company was, according to the petition, able to expense legal fees for 66 years. Ratepayers could be on the hook for them until 2084 "without any explanation," it says.

The office of regulatory staff says Carolina Water spread out the fees for so long "quite obviously to attempt to hide these absurdly high costs, incurred in a losing cause."

Carolina Water serves customers statewide, including more than 9,700 customers in York County in Lake Wylie and unincorporated areas of Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

The public service commission makes judgments on utility questions in the state.

In 2004, the office of regulatory staff branched off to handle the investigative, legal, prosecution and educational roles of the commission.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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