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Monday, July 14, 2014

Gee, Our Diocese?

Even though it's been thirty years, and even though the circumstances are vastly different, the word giardiasis still makes me cringe.

Now, it's a small community water system in Stockton that's pumping allegedly contaminated water through its pipes.  Back then, it was a big water company that dropped the ball in protecting its customers, and we all got sick, in more ways than one.

The contaminated resevoir thing in the early 80's started small, and then it really took off.  I vividly remember the news conference to announce the water in the Scranton area was bad.  It was held at the Wilkes-Barre office of what was called the Department of Environmental Resources back then-- upper floor of the Thomas building at Union and Pennsylvania.

I remember being momentarily torn.  Who do I call first?  My radio station or my family?  I knew the family usually listened when I was out reporting, so I called the WARM newsroom first, and then my family to make sure.  DON'T DRINK THE WATER!

I was fortunate to work for a solid organization that knew the value of news and community service.  WARM took the ball and ran with it.  I don't think anyone came close to getting as much information out there so quickly.  I was on the road.  The great Terry McNulty was in the studio, and he knew just the right notes to hit.

What was called the Pennsylvania Gas and Water Company skated by for years without filtration plants.  Tests showed the water contained giardia cysts, and you could get violently ill from drinking it.  It was THE dominant story for months as fingers were pointed, hearings were held, lawsuits were filed, etc.

The company claimed development near its watershed put, I kid you not, put beavers under stress, and the beaver droppings were more toxic than normal.  Yep, blame development rather than take responsibility for not having filtration plants, even though PG&W was warned.  Valuable lesson:  stressed beavers have more bad stuff in their doo doo.  They never taught me that at Marywood.

The state's remedy?  Force PG&W to build filtration plants, and give them the OK to bill customers for it.  Yes, the company faced sanctions and fines, but consumers were the ones who ultimately paid the price.  On top of that, PG&W still charged us for water you couldn't use.  A Public Utility Commissioner fought that.  In a radio interview with me, he posed the question "How much would you pay for a gallon of contaminated water?"  Of course, the answer was nothing.  Unfortunately, the rest of the PUC didn't see that way.

Eventually, the filtration plants were built.  Water rates went up.  PG&W was sold and a lot of people walked away fat and happy.

The neglect of PG&W management could have killed someone.  The behavior was as much criminal as it was civil, but it never got that far.  Not even close.  There was a class action lawsuit.  Some people who were sickened got money.  Lawyers got money.

Even though the current and 1980's situations are very different, it shows, in many ways, we still haven't learned.