Aqua, East Whiteland, and PUC to ask for second look at court ruling barring utility sale

Some Pa. ratepayers saw the recent court ruling as a rebuke against rising water and sewer bills. Now, Aqua and a township in Chester County are seeking corrective action.

Patrick Cicero speaking at a podium, standing next to Gladys Brown

Patrick Cicero, the state’s appointed consumer advocate (left), challenged a decision by the Public Utility Commission, led by Chair Gladys Brown (right). (Commonwealth Media Services)

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An ongoing legal battle between a Chester County township, two state agencies, and a major water utility company is not over just yet.

A spokesperson for Aqua Pennsylvania, which is looking to acquire East Whiteland’s sewer system, told WHYY News on Monday that the company, township, and Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission “plan to request a re-hearing of the Commonwealth Court’s decision.”

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently reversed an order from the PUC, which previously approved Aqua’s $54.9 million acquisition of East Whiteland’s wastewater system.

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Pennsylvania Consumer Advocate Patrick Cicero successfully argued in his legal petition that the PUC failed to prove that Aqua’s acquisition would provide any public benefit for East Whiteland’s 3,900 residents.

Ratepayers across the state who are opposed to large water companies buying public utility systems and raising water bills welcomed the court ruling as a first-of-its-kind rebuke of “big water.”

In a lengthy joint statement issued last week, the East Whiteland Township Board of Supervisors said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the recent court ruling and vowed “to seek correction of this decision.”

“In seeking its appeal of the PUC’s decision, we believe the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) failed to consider the numerous public benefits included in the record and significantly beneficial to the safety, well-being and lifestyle of EW residents. We strongly disagree with the decision, which adopted what we believe to be the OCA’s erroneous position,” the statement read.

WHYY News reached out to Cicero for comment, but he was not immediately available to respond.

East Whiteland’s Board of Supervisors claims the blocking of the transaction will prevent the township’s construction of a new police station, obstruct the pursuit of open space, cut East Whiteland’s ability to lessen its $20 million in debt, increase sewer rates, and restrict the township’s ability to address its flooding issues among other things.

In their statement, the Board of Supervisors said the Commonwealth Court’s opinion does not allow for the board to adequately fulfill their role as elected officials.

“The Commonwealth granted townships the authority to make these decisions in part based upon their understanding of local needs and priorities. In the event the reversal remains permanent, this Board will not [be] able to move forward with its plans and vision for the Township,” the Board of supervisor’s statement read.

A request for a re-hearing is not the same thing as an appeal. None of the entities involved have commented on the possibility of an appeal filing — which would go before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if it ever decided to hear the case.

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A spokesperson for the PUC said the commission is still reviewing the ruling.

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