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Commission right to hold Aloha accountable

The Florida Public Service Commission made the right call Tuesday, rejecting its staff's recommendation to let Aloha Utilities off the hook for producing dirty, foul-smelling water.

By historical standards, the PSC demonstrated an unusual level of concern for consumers by ordering a survey of Aloha's 8,000 customers in the Seven Springs area of southwestern Pasco County. Commissioner Susan Clark even persuaded some of her fellow commissioners to visit Pasco homes where Aloha's product flows dark and smelly from faucets.

These are commendable steps and welcome news to residents who feared the PSC might approve a staff recommendation to force Aloha's customers to replace copper plumbing in their homes with PVC pipes, and to let Aloha go with an order to adjust pH levels in the water.

The PSC wisely dismissed that plan, but it remains for commissioners to determine the cause of Aloha's problem _ and to make sure the utility pays most, if not all, of the cost of solving it.

In a competitive market, Aloha long ago would have cleaned up its act or been buried by a more customer-friendly competitor. Like all private utilities, however, Aloha enjoys a monopoly in its service area. The PSC's role is to make sure the utility provides decent service at reasonable rates.

But the PSC does not always live up to that responsibility, which might be why Aloha assumed it could get away with blaming its water-quality problem on its customers' copper pipes. In fact, it did get away with it, as far as the PSC's staff was concerned. Fortunately, commissioners paid attention to the complaints of Aloha customers whose plumbing is made of plastic.

PSC Chairman Julia Johnson said she is concerned about issuing any proposed action in this matter without thoroughly exploring the issues and knowing with certainty that a recommendation will accomplish its intended purpose. These are soothing sentiments to Aloha's customers. To act on them, the PSC should demand that its staff make every effort to find the cause of Aloha's problem, including a request for genuine surprise inspections of Aloha facilities by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Meantime, Aloha customers can help themselves by keeping the pressure on the PSC to pay attention to the problem. Without the efforts of several concerned residents and State Rep. Mike Fasano, whose constituent service in this case has been first-class, Aloha well might have had its way in Tallahassee and left its customers holding the bag.

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