CHARLESTON - West Virginia public officials have been speaking out to help residents during the current water crisis regarding price gouging and the ongoing investigation.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey encouraged West Virginians to do what they can to help local business owners and employees who were forced to close their stores or were prevented from working due to the water crisis.
"The past few days have been incredibly hard for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who have been forced to live without access to clean water for drinking or to accomplish things we took for granted, such as take a shower, wash dishes or do laundry," Morrisey said. "But, in true West Virginia style, we have come together as neighbors and helped each other out. Now that water is coming back on in certain areas, we need to continue our teamwork to support our neighborhood business owners and employees who were prohibited from working through no fault of their own."
The Do Not Use order issued on Jan. 9 caused restaurants, hair salons, car washes and many other businesses that used water to close their doors or deeply limit what they could sell.
"Many business owners do not anticipate having to close for several days in a row, and as a result, may face severe economic hardships," Morrisey said. "Small businesses, and restaurants in particular, typically work with very little margins; having to go days without customers could put these people in a make-or-break scenario.:
Morrisey said the closures have had a devastating impact on employees of the closed down businesses who may have gone without pay due to the crisis.
"Now that the immediate crisis appears to be over for some and almost over for others, I hope we will continue to work together to help our neighbors," Morrisey said. "We have endured a very trying time, and many people, agencies and companies have stepped forward to help strangers with no expectation of getting anything in return. I hope those acts continue and don’t stop as soon as the water faucets turn on."
Morrisey said his office's price gouging call-in number will be open 24 hours a day during the ongoing water crisis.
"Our Office has taken the steps to ensure that the toll free number will be open and operating during this crisis," Morrisey said. "We have already received numerous calls from consumers who believe they have experienced price gouging, and as this stretches on through the weekend, we believe more instances will arise. Due to call volume, if you call and get voice mail, please leave a message and someone will get in touch with you as soon as they can."
During a state of emergency, price gouging laws go into effect.
Those laws essentially prohibit any person, business or contractor from inflating by more than 10 percent the price of any good or service that is deemed to be vital and necessary to the health, safety and welfare of consumers.
Price gouging laws stay in effect until the state of emergency is lifted or 30 days, whichever is longer.
"We want people to know that price gouging laws apply not just to water, but other supplies people need to stay clean, eat and stay healthy," Morrisey said.
Morrisey said the law is clear about what constitutes as price gouging and his office will be vigilant in protecting consumers from those who seek to take advantage of others during a time of crisis.
"Many of the water stations currently set up in the region require consumers bring their own jugs," Morrisey said. "People shouldn’t have to pay artificially inflated prices to buy a jug in order to get the water their family desperately needs."
Morrisey said if people must pay inflated prices to buy items they need to stay safe and healthy, they should make sure they get a receipt. If the consumer opts to file a complaint, he or she should attach a copy of the receipt to the complaint.
"Receipts are not necessary in order to file a complaint, but they do help our office in tracking offenders," Morrisey said.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin issued a statement regarding his office's investigation in to the release of the chemical.
"As the immediate water crisis begins to ease and West Virginians regain access to drinkable water, I want to make three things clear," Goodwin said. "One, my office will continue working as quickly as possible to find out exactly what happened here, including the complete timeline of the release and what was done--or not done--before and after it. Two, if our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable. And three, companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: if you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again."
Residents in parts of the nine affected counties that have been under the Do Not Use order are to begin flushing their water pipes in zones. Zone 1 residents have already been permitted to begin flushing their water pipes.
West Virginia Adjutant General James Hoyer said the flushing will be done in zones because outlying areas still need to be tested.
To find out which areas are able to begin flushing, go to www.amwater.com/wvaw.
People who believe they have been charged prices in violation of the law are encouraged to call the Attorney General's Office’s toll-free hotline at 800-368-8808 and file a report.