Veolia water company’s liability change concerns firefighters and watchdogs

“A request by Rockland’s primary water supplier to change its service agreement as part of a rate increase is being viewed by firefighters and watchdogs as an attempt to avoid any public liabilities.

Veolia North America’s rate increase seeks to exempt its liability for Public Fire Protection resulting from a lack of water capacity and or pressure and other issues.

The utility came under criticism for the lack of water pressure during the fatal fire in March 2021 to an adult home in Spring Valley. The New York State Public Service Commission report released in January essentially cleared the water company of responsibility for the water pressure issue.

Veolia demurred from criticism that its request seeks to sidestep responsibilities to the public and that the fatal Evergreen Court Home for Adults fire or any potential catastrophe played a role. The utility doesn’t control all situations beyond its control, such as busted underground water mains.

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“The section in question simply makes clear that Veolia and our customers should not be held liable for conditions outside of its control,” according to a Veolia statement released by William Madden, director of communications and community affairs for the utility.

The statement contends the “proposed revision to Veolia’s tariff is not spurred by any single incident and is consistent with other provisions already in the existing tariff.”

“The proposed change will not impact the company’s obligations under New York State law,” the statement says, “and is part of a comprehensive examination of our rate filing by the New York State Public Service Commission.”

Questions about the request

However, attorney Susan Shapiro and fire officials take a different view of Veolia’s request and question why the wording appears in a request for higher rates from its water customers. Shapiro, an environmental attorney, is a party to the Veolia rate case as an intervenor. Other opponents of Veolia’s request, with a 14.2 % rate increase, include the Rockland Water Coalition, Sierra Club, and the county and local governments.”This proposal alters contract terms and goes beyond rate adjustments,” Shapiro said.  “This is a major shift in customer service expectations.”

She cites the wording in Veolia’s rate increase request: “The Company shall not be considered an insurer of property or persons or to have undertaken to extinguish fire or to protect persons or property against loss by fire or otherwise. The Company does not guarantee any special service, pressure, capacity or facility other than what is provided by its ordinary and changing operating conditions as they exist from day to day. It is agreed by the parties receiving service that the Company shall be free and exempt from any and all claims for injury to persons or property by reason of fire, water, failure to supply water pressure or capacity.” “(If) their claim (is) that they are already not liable to provide adequate water pressure and capacity for fire protection, then why are they asking for this new language?” Shapiro said. “It seems this is an attempt to limit their liability as a direct response to the Evergreen fire.”

The request raised red flags among some county fire chiefs, said Chris Kear, the Rockland coordinator of Fire and Emergency Services.

Kear, a retired firefighter who served with the volunteer Hillcrest Fire Department, said the passage is poorly worded and leaves open Veolia’s intentions to interpretation and disconcerting. “We do have concerns about the fact we don’t want Veolia to skirt any responsibilities,” Kear said. “What they are proposing in their rate hike proposal is poorly worded and it makes it seem like they have no responsibility. Whether that’s their intention or not is to be determined. The impression is not comforting.”

Read the complete Journal News coverage here.