2011-08-25 / Local & State

Water Leak Leaves Pa. Resident With $41K Bill

By Jo Ciavaglia
BUCKS COUNTY COURIER TIMES

LEVITTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Ruby Williams has known for a while she had an underground leak at her Bristol Township property, but now the $3,500 repair that she couldn’t afford has turned into a $41,530.49 water bill.

Aqua Pennsylvania says the bill is the result of what it calls a “precedent-setting’’ water leak in Williams’ portion of the water service line.

The leak was so massive that Williams used nearly three-quarters of a million gallons of water in 31 days last month, more than the amount needed to fill an Olympic- size swimming pool.

On Friday, Aqua Pennsylvania’s manager for Eastern Operations visited the property and confirmed a “roaring’’ leak exists, most likely between the home’s pantry and kitchen that gushed as much as 16 gallons of water a minute. The home’s water service was temporarily shut off for the second time in less than a week.

A plumber and an Aqua maintenance crew were at the Williams property on Saturday and a new company service line was installed at a more accessible location. The new Aqua service line’s location will save Williams plumbing costs related to the installation of her new customer water line, Aqua spokeswoman Donna Alston said Saturday.

“This is an extraordinarily unusual situation,’’ Alston added. “We have never seen a leak this large on a residential customer property.’’

Bucks County Consumer Protection Director Mike Bannon agrees the situation is extremely unusual. But what he wants to know is why Aqua would allow a 23,000-gallon-a-day leak to go unfixed for months. His office is investigating.

“You’ve got to fix this problem, not run up the bill,’’ Bannon said.

But legally Aqua cannot enter or inspect a customer’s property unless a leak is found on its side of the water service line or water is surfacing and damaging its portion of the line, Alston said. Customers are responsible for maintaining the water service lines that run between the curb box and the meter, as well as internal plumbing, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Even if Aqua notices a customer is using an extraordinary amount of water, such as the Williams case, it cannot take action as long as the bill is paid on time.

“As curious as we might be, we have no right to call the customer or inquire about how that water is being used,’’ Alston said. “We could have wondered all day long. We don’t have the right (to interfere).’’

Aqua says its customer records show Williams received a “High Bill Alert’’ notice on her March 31 water bill; the special message appears on bills if the water usage amount reaches 300 percent of their average usage.

In early April, Ruby Williams called to say she received a $7,219.15 water bill, Alston said. At the time, Williams acknowledged she was aware of a leak on her side of the water service line and says she indicated it would be fixed, Alston said.

Williams, 78, said she knew the home, which she shares with her daughter and granddaughter, had an underground leak, and two plumbers confirmed it. But she didn’t have the estimated $3,500 to fix it immediately, something she said she told Aqua’s billing department.

Until last year Williams said she worked part-time for No Longer Bound, a local social service agency; her daughter and granddaughter, who live with her, both work full time, she said. The home’s water bill is under the name of her daughter, who lives with her.

Alston, though, says records show Williams informed Aqua in April and May that she was going to fix the leak, and that she reported on June 8 that the leak was fixed.

Williams adamantly denies she told Aqua the leak was repaired. A copy of her water bill for July through August appears to support her claim. It shows the average daily water use at the property was 23,432 gallons or 726,400 gallons in 31 days, according to a copy of her most recent water bill.

The typical residential water user in Williams’ area uses about 4,500 gallons a month, Alston said.

Aqua workers checked the property water meter on March 3 and Aug. 5, and no problems were found with the meter, Alston said.

When a customer suspects a leak, Aqua will send workers to check its side of the service line and if none is found there, as happened with Williams, the customer is informed the leak is on their side of the property, Alston said. Aqua workers checked the service line in April and May and found no problems on its side, she added.

An auditor with the company’s Helping Hands program for low-income customers who have defaulted on payment arrangements conducted an “audit’’ Friday that found no evidence of water surfacing in or around the property, Alston said.

Where such a large volume of water could be draining remains a mystery, though Alston said there are only two places it could go: an underground water table or a sewer system.

Mike Becht, a master plumber and manager of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing in Bristol Township, said water meters are typically accurate, but a leak producing 23,000 gallons of water a day on a residential property doesn’t seem feasible.

To use that volume of water, a 3/4-inch pipe would have to be completely sheared off, Becht said. He added that amount of water flowing into the ground likely would leave behind evidence of property damage.

As her water bill hit the five-digit mark, Williams said she made payment arrangements with Aqua to pay down the growing balance. Alston confirmed that the company approved a payment schedule for Williams in April.

Williams says she has made regular payments toward the balance. A copy of her Aug. 3 water bill shows she paid $200 towards her $34,322.51 balance the previous month. Alston confirmed a $350 payment was made on Aug. 15.

Aqua says its records show Williams has not been “current for some time’’ in her payments, but Alston said that most of the $41,000 outstanding balance had accumulated since March, when the water usage skyrocketed, Alston said.

On Wednesday, Aqua shut off water service at the home “primarily’’ for nonpayment, Alston confirmed. The water was turned on again Friday morning, but shut off a few hours later after Aqua confirmed the leak was not repaired and so large it required further action on the company’s part, Alston said.

Generally, water service cannot be terminated to a home, if a formal payment arrangement exists and the customer is meeting the payments, Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. Absent a formal arrangement, the water company can cut off service for nonpayment.

Aqua has gathered information for a local social service agency that may be able to provide Williams financial assistance for the leak repair.

Alston added that the $41,000 outstanding balance will be modified – in Williams’ favor – though she could not say by how much it will be, but she suspects it will be “far lower’’ than what it is now.

“Because we are going to make an adjustment on her account, when the service is restored today she will continue to have water,’’ Alston added. “Hopefully, we will come to an agreement to an adjustment and a future pay- ment arrangement so she can have service into the future.’’

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