Residents cite water crisis neglect
Some Pine Bluff residents are asking ‘what about us?’ during the water crisis as many feel they have been neglected when it comes to water restoration.
Nedra Sykes is a mother of six who lives in the Dollarway area and has been without water for over a week. An emotional Sykes said it has been hard trying to find water to boil so she can give her children a warm bath.
“This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t have to go through this,” Sykes said.
The emotional toll is wearing on Sykes who says the water her children use to clean themselves and the household uses to flush the toilet is non-existent.
“It’s not our fault this is happening,” Sykes said — she added that if the water troubles were due to unpaid bills, her kids would be taken away as punishment. “Everybody needs water. It’s unsanitary to sit here and smell defecation and urination in your toilet.”
Also living in the Dollarway area is Kendra McBride, who said her water level has been inconsistent while neighbors are experiencing low pressure water — or none at all.
“People are very understanding to a certain degree, but at the same token you have residents that have infants,” she said. “People have
to fix formula. You have the elderly in homes. You have to be able to flush your toilet.”
McBride said people in the neighborhood are frustrated and said finding bottled water in grocery stores is becoming impossible. Sykes wondered why local elected leaders and other elected officials aren’t checking on the neighborhoods, or going door-todoor to ensure residents were all right.
“Why aren’t they dropping off water to our homes to make sure we can flush our toilets,” she asked. “It should be a tank of water outside everyone’s house. We pay our taxes.”
McBride said she watched Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s press conference with local leaders on Tuesday and when he asked how the residents of Pine Bluff were doing, McBride said she was not happy with the response.
“The leaders made us feel like we weren’t a priority,” she said. “They are a public servant and they are to serve the public and they were mostly fixated on the students.”
While McBride said she understands the urgent need for the hospitals and nursing homes to have water, she said she wished someone in that meeting would have spoken up for the needs of residents.
“We need drinking water. We need our toilets to flush,” said McBride, who has seen the National Guard aid residents in other counties. “People in my neighborhood have not had water since the snowstorm. We need help.”
Sykes, who has also been keeping up with the media coverage of the water crisis, blamed Liberty for the dire conditions her family is enduring.
“Liberty Utilities lied to us,” she said. “Liberty Utilities knew they had an infrastructure problem, but they are charging these high prices and fees and still didn’t fix the problem. What’s going on?”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued a statement Tuesday following the Arkansas Public Service Commission’s announcement of an investigation into Liberty Utilities for its response to the winter weather damage to the community water system in Pine Bluff.
Rutledge said her office has opened an investigation into Liberty Utilities’ preparation and actions that ultimately resulted in a catastrophic failure to protect its customers in Pine Bluff and to determine whether the company should have done more to protect Jefferson Regional Medical Center, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, residents and essential businesses.
Ted Thomas, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, also released an order Tuesday stating it had come to the attention of the Arkansas Public Service Commission that Liberty Utilities had been experiencing obvious water leak issues in its system over the course of the last week to two weeks in the Pine Bluff area.
The Commission said that as a regulated utility, Liberty “has a duty to provide reasonable, safe, adequate, and sufficient service to its customers.” The Commission ordered the utility to file a public report no later than noon today “delineating the steps it has taken to provide such service to the customers in the Pine Bluff area.”
The Commission is also asking Liberty to state in its report its plan to identify and fix the water problems in Pine Bluff, but Pine Bluff residents just want one thing from Liberty Utilities—water.
“Even Liberty, in good faith, could have made sure residential neighborhoods at least have bottled water,” McBride said. “Somebody needs to get it going. We need bottled water. It’s a crisis in Arkansas period, but don’t just treat us like we don’t matter.”
Liberty Utilities has defended itself for the water crisis, saying the problems stemmed from a natural disaster because of the extremely low temperatures and that it is doing everything it can to fix the problems caused by the cold. Water utility officials also announced on Wednesday that water pressure improvements were being seen in all three of its plants and that crew members were working in teams to systematically canvass zones within the community — including neighborhoods.
In response to neighborhood concerns over lack of water and feelings of abandonment, Pine Bluff Alderman Steven Mays — who represents Ward 4 where McBride and Sykes live — said he knows the citizens are upset and he doesn’t blame them.
“I’m upset because I wasn’t told the truth at first about the leaks in the city,” said Mays, who noted that he has reported numerous water leaks since he has been on the city council. “Many of the leaks are not being taken care of at the proper time.”
Mays said it can take two to three months to repair the problems.
When it comes to caring for not only the people in Ward 4 but all of the citizens of Pine Bluff, Mays said he has always been an advocate for the community. Just recently he said he helped an elderly couple suffering from heart problems who have no water in their home.
“I called the local Liberty Utilities manager who checked on them because I was very concerned about them,” Mays said. “Lamont Davis has been personally delivering water to those who have reached out.” Davis is a Liberty Utilities executive in the Pine Bluff office.
Mays said he was encouraging citizens to call with their concerns and problems so local officials can help, because he said some officials aren’t in the loop.
“As an elected official I wasn’t receiving the full report,” said Mays, who added that he couldn’t speak for the other city council members. “A lot of things went around me.”
Once Mays received the full report, he said he questioned Liberty Utilities and was told the problem would be over soon.
“I didn’t get the correct information at first,” Mays said. “I am an elected official and I should know what is going on in my Ward.”
It wasn’t until parents of displaced students from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff reached out to Mays that he learned students were living on campus with no water. “That’s in my ward and a lot of things were held back that the citizens should have known through the city council members,” he said.
“I was late getting the information and I am still upset for not having the information up front,” Mays said. “Liberty needs to be held accountable for what they have done, because it’s unacceptable.”
Councilmember Bruce Lockett, who also represents Ward 4, said he agreed with Mays.
“Nobody has called me to say that their water is off,” Lockett said. “We as elected officials can only address what is brought to us.”
Lockett’s contact number can be found on the city’s website at https:// www.cityofpinebluffar.gov/elected-officials
“If there is ever an emergency from anybody just give us a call,” Lockett said. “We have resources and we will come to their aid.”