“Do we need to go to the Governor?” - NC communities lose water again, fed up with lack of accountability from state regulators

A brown, thick substance emerged from WRI customers' faucets after water service was restored in two communities near Harrisburg.
Updated: Jul. 7, 2022 at 5:45 PM EDT

HARRISBURG, N.C. (WBTV) - There were so many warnings. Residents knew, state regulators knew, and multiple WBTV Investigations showed that if the utility provider Water Resources, Inc. did not set up a secondary water connection, two communities near Harrisburg could lose water completely.

The last week of June 2022 that’s exactly what happened. Despite the dozens of warnings, the tale of Water Resources, Inc. (WRI) highlights the consequences a slow-moving bureaucracy can have on the well-being of North Carolinians.

For three years, two communities in Harrisburg were only relying on one well for water. The second one had to be shutdown because of high levels of radium contaminants, according to records from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

The safety of their water source was just part of the problem. Complaints from residents in Rocky River Plantation and Highland Ridge are scattered across customer logs WRI must submit to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

Customers are so accustomed to issues they know the name of WRI’s owner, Dennis Abbott, not a common shared fact among North Carolina communities.

NCDEQ, NCUC, NCDOJ and, to some extent, the Office of the Governor all have responsibility in regulating and enforcing the rules governing WRI and other utilities. Residents in these communities are calling on them to finally hold the utility accountable but have serious doubts because of their lack of action so far.

When the two communities lost water in June, WBTV reached out to residents for an interview about their situation. Nearly 50 showed up to lodge criticisms against WRI.

Customers complained that, despite testing from NCDEQ showing the water is not contaminated, the water is hard and often filled with sediments. Additionally, the water often comes out brown after the system is flushed or when water service is restored after an outage.

“The water is so hard you could almost chew it,” one resident said.

Additionally, customers said the brown water stains and ruins their appliances.

“We’ve replaced so many appliances. Our hot water heater four times in the last 10 years,” a homeowner said.

Tubs, countertops, faucets have all been tarnished, trashed and replaced, they said, because of the silky, hard water that they rely on. Almost all the residents in the interview said they refuse to drink the water and instead buy bottled water.

When the water was restored after two days, residents sent video of the brown substance that emerged from their faucets.

NCUC and NCDEQ both know about these problems. Two homeowners WBTV interviewed numerous times previously, Eric Olsen and Lenny Devitto, have filed complaints about WRI with the NCUC. Both Devitto and Olsen requested that an emergency operator by appointed. Devitto’s request was denied and Olsen’s hearing was in October and NCUC has still not issued an order.

“The NCUC is well aware of this at this point.,” Olsen told WBTV.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s their responsibility for us being without water today.”

In an email to WBTV, NCUC legal counsel Sam Watson said that a ruling on Olsen’s hearing should be coming soon.

Statement from NCUC’s Sam Watson:

“I cannot comment on matters pending before the Commission and cannot give you a specific date by which orders in such cases will be issued. However, Mr. Olsen’s leaking meter has been repaired, and as I indicated in my earlier responses to him, the Commission should issue an order on his complaint before too much longer. Also, Water Resources indicated in February that it had replaced all of the meters in Rocky River Plantation, an open issue from its last rate case raised by Mr. Devitto.”

The leaking meters were addressed by WBTV’s first investigation into WRI on May 18, 2021 and were only fixed after WRI applied for a new rate increase with the NCUC.

The issue of the well and water source is regulated by NCDEQ.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality says having just one well presents a “significantly elevated public health risk.”

On August 12, 2019, Water Resources Inc said it would fix the health issue by connecting with the Town of Harrisburg. Nearly three years later, after numerous violations and missed deadlines, it still hasn’t happened.

In July 2021, NCDEQ and the North Carolina Department of Justice got a consent judgement against Water Resources, setting deadlines for completing a connection.

But that still hasn’t been done. A letter from the Attorney General’s Office in June 2022 reveals NCDEQ agreed to move the deadline again, mandating a connection by completed and service active “no later than October 10, 2022.

Court records show Water Resources wasn’t held in contempt for not following the consent judgement and hasn’t been forced to pay the $4,500 in fines it’s accrued for being in violation.

One of the reasons for moving the deadline to connect was because, according to the letter from NCDOJ, NCUC staff made an alternative suggestion for completing the connection, slowing down the project more.

One agency getting in the way of another and leaving these customers frustrated and without water.

“I mean, do we need to go to the Governor? He oversees the Utilities Commission. He appoints those people. Somebody needs to crack down on them or somebody needs to get fired,” Devitto said.

WBTV reached out to these state agencies to ask what they’re doing to fix the problem for WRI customers and ensure a long lasting issue like this isn’t repeated in another community.

Statement from NCDOJ:

“NCDOJ is continuing to coordinate with DEQ on this issue as their legal counsel. Separately, we are also looking into in the consumer complaints that North Carolinians have been filing with our office. We have received a few complaints, and we continue to encourage people to file consumer concerns with our office as well as with DEQ. You can file a complaint with DOJ’s Consumer Protection Division at www.ncdoj.gov/complaint or 1-877-5-NO-SCAM. We will continue working with DEQ to resolve this matter and ensure clean drinking water for North Carolinians.

Statement from Mary Scott Winstead, Deputy Communications Director for the Office of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper:

“The Governor expects DEQ and the Department of Justice to continue to use their authority to resolve this issue and water providers must follow the law.”

Statement from NCDEQ:

“Residents are right to be frustrated with the ongoing service issues with their water system operator. DEQ and DOJ are using our authority to force improvement from this operator. We are closely monitoring the situation and committed to ensuring a resolution for the community. We will explore ways to make sure community members have access to updates from our agencies going forward.”

WBTV also interviewed WRI’s legal counsel Patrick Buffkin about the ongoing issues for WRI customers.

WBTV spoke with a legal counsel of Water Resources, Inc. regarding water-related issues facing residents in the Harrisburg area.

On why the water is brown and filled with sediment and milky:

“That is something that happens when a water system loses pressure. The water sits still and then when the system is re pressurized you can have both of those results.”

On whether having a second water connection would have prevented the water outage:

“It is difficult to say, but that is the purpose of the water adequacy regulations that we are working on resolving those issues.”

On why it has taken so long to connect to a secondary water source:

“A good part of the delay was to explore and explore all options for resolving the problem and that is really something that Water Resources did to the benefit of customers. The company didn’t want to spend more money to fix the problem than was necessary.”

On whether customers can expect another rate hike application after construction for the connection is completed:

“It’s a little too early to tell right now when a rate case might happen… but it is true as a general rule, the more money that a utility spends, the more likely it is that a rate increase is going to be necessary.”

Residents who are struggling with issues with their utility have several options to lodge complaints.

File a Complaint with NCUC Public Staff

File a Complaint with NCUC

File a Complaint with NCDOJ

File a Complaint with NCDEQ

Email the WBTV Investigates Team at investigates@wbtv.com

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