Officials from Suez Water caught heat from lawmakers Wednesday morning who were critical the utility giant is not doing enough to make sure customers know about problems with their drinking water, and to comply with a 2017 law that ramped up stricter drinking water standards.
“I’d hate for the Legislature to force the professional utilities to have to make the changes,” Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District, told two Suez representatives – Director of Engineering Emad Sidhom and Director of Utility Operations Craig O’Connell – during a legislative hearing on the Water Quality Accountability Act.
Earlier this year, Suez rolled out a program charging ratepayers $1,000 to replace residential lines that might be outdated and leaking, or containing lead.
That amount would be tacked onto a customer’s water bill as a monthly surcharge, but it will still cost $15 million – all pending approval from the Board of Public Utilities – with replacements bringing a price tag between $5,000 and $8,000.
“We would want to work with [the state] to see how we can stabilize that cost to a customer, to a household,” O’Connell said.
“There’s over $19.6 billion in revenue that Suez made,” Singleton countered. “So if revenue is $19.6 billion, to sit and tell us that we’re waiting for the BPU to tell us that we could use a portion of that money to help a situation that we know is a problem, frankly just falls short and falls flat.”
O’Connor told lawmakers they were working closely with the municipalities they service, as well as homeowners who tested high for levels of lead.
Moreover, Suez has been conducting aggressive outreach campaigns so that they know their lines could get tested for lead, and that a financing scheme would be available for them to have the lines replaced.
“I’m sure we can do more,” O’Connell, who said that Suez still had not gotten that many customer calls, told lawmakers. “We have done community outreach, advertised through our Facebook page, Twitter page… newspaper ads.”
That simply was not enough, according to Sen. Brian Stack, D-33rd District, who said the outreach efforts passed over renters who do not own the properties with contaminated lines, and that many customers still do not use the internet.
“Suez has to make an investment to everybody in the region to make sure it’s reaching every single household,” Stack said. “There’s got to be a major advertisement and major ways to reach out into the community.”
Singleton said he was largely frustrated by the answers from Suez officials, which he felt were not substantial.
“It’s disappointing that individuals that… you’re not in a position to actually give this effort,” Singleton said.