(ran North, South editions)
Giving new muscle to customer complaints against Aloha Utilities, the Public Service Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to initiate a process to take away part of the water provider's service area in southwest Pasco.
The move was heralded by customers as a sign the decade-old struggle could be winding down, and that clear, odorless water would one day flow from their taps.
"I feel certain that as the commission looks at the documents and understands the issues, deletion will take place," said Seven Springs resident Wayne Forehand, who watched the hearing over the Internet.
Aloha promised to fight, citing the PSC's own staff analysis that the company has not violated state law and that its water meets environmental standards. Aloha, based in New Port Richey, also expressed a desire to move forward with planned system upgrades and enter mediation with customers.
"We believe going forward with this new case means that energy and money that could be focused completely on customer satisfaction and enhancing water quality will instead have to be spent on a legal case that we believe has no merit," Aloha president Steve Watford said. "It's likely to go on for years and cost millions of dollars and in the end benefit no one, especially our customers."
For a brief moment Tuesday, Aloha prevailed. The PSC stopped a scheduled proceeding that would let customers leave the utility. But not because the complaint was found to be without merit; rather because it had been initiated by Aloha customers. The PSC issues licenses, so the commission had to take the lead.
With its 5-0 vote, the PSC will become a prosecutor of sorts, building a case against Aloha and why it should lose customers in the Seven Springs area. Several hundred customers signed petitions to get water from Pasco County. Aloha says it has 15,000 customers throughout southwest Pasco and that most are satisfied.
"Today the commissioners not only heard the customers, but now they are the customers' advocates," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who testified before the PSC in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
Deletion hearings under the customer-initiated petition were to begin Jan. 27. The new course will result in a delay, though how long was not known Tuesday.
The PSC rejected a majority staff opinion that the entire matter be terminated. Staff said there "is no probable cause to believe that Aloha has violated a statute, rule or order that warrants the imposition of a penalty." It noted that Aloha's water meets all state and federal drinking water standards up to the point of connection to customer meters.
Aloha attorney John Wharton told the PSC that deleting part of Aloha's territory would be unprecedented and "millions and millions of dollars are at stake."
Aloha, he said, "has not flaunted your authority," and worked to correct problems even though the water meets environmental standards. He accused some customers of spreading misinformation to further their cause.
The company is working on a hydrogen peroxide oxidation treatment that will convert sulfide, which accounts for water discoloration and odor problems, into more benign sulfur forms. The upgrade would cost about $4-million.