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Gov. Hutchinson visits Pine Bluff to assess ongoing water pressure issues

The Attorney General's office opened an investigation into Liberty Utilities for its response to the weather damage to the community water supply in Pine Bluff.

PINE BLUFF, Ark — Governor Hutchinson visited Pine Bluff as they're going on almost a week with water pressure issues citywide. 

With some of the same problems plaguing different cities statewide, Gov. Hutchinson says Pine Bluff has significant institutions that have reduced operations because of water leaks.

Jefferson Regional Medical Center and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff are the two major institutions whose representatives were in a morning meeting with the governor and city officials Tuesday to discuss issues.

"This is the start in my review. If we can be elsewhere that's helpful, we will be, but I want to start here in Jefferson County because this is a problem that's going to take some urgent attention to identify the leaks that are present," said Gov. Hutchinson.

RELATED: Pine Bluff deals with low water pressure citywide after winter storm

Local fire had to bring water to the hospital to keep them up and running for medical staff and patients. They're currently utilizing a tank to pump water throughout the hospital and keeping the emergency room open, but not admitting routine in-patients.

The UAPB Alumni Associations distributed food and water after receiving donations of current relocated students. A majority were moved to hotels in Little Rock after experiencing no heat or working water on campus. They're still relocated.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington addressed the chancellor's concerns for students to Gov. Hutchinson. Her granddaughter is a current students and says her friends were thinking about dropping out if they have to go home. 

RELATED: UAPB students in Little Rock hotel due to no heat and water pressure issues

It was this time last year that Washington says students started leaving school when the pandemic started. Now with the threat of that happening again, they're wanting to move faster in solving water issues on campus.

Mike Batty is the vice president of water and gas operations for Liberty Utilities. He presented to Gov. Hutchinson what the company has been doing so far in order to increase water pressure. 

"We've gone through vacant buildings. We're actively looking for leaks all over the city. We've even had drones fly looking for irregular places of water with the Pine Bluff police. We're pulling some national attention. We've got some national help coming to see if there's any underground structures leaking," said Batty.

He says Liberty Utility employees from Arizona and California are also coming in to add to the man power. The goal is to have 50 people with boots on the ground as compared to half of that now. 

Arkansas Attorney General, Leslie Rutledge opened up an investigation into Liberty Utilities Tuesday afternoon for its response on the winter weather damage to the community water supply in Pine Bluff: 

“My office has opened an investigation into the preparation and actions by Liberty Utilities which 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, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, residents and essential businesses.

I applaud the Public Service Commission’s decision to also open an investigation into the failure by Liberty Utilities to restore water service to Pine Bluff residents in a reasonable and timely manner.”

Kelli Price is a spokesperson for the company and says when they first started hearing about the water problems Thursday, they started sharing information with customers. Price recognizes a disconnect with communication for some, though.

"We understand we've been struggling with that, for sure. We've got some work to do there. We are posting on our website. So we encourage our customers to go to our website. We're posting on social media and we're also sending out customer emails," said Price. 

She says there's not a lot of customer emails on file and encourages them to call in order to be added to the list.  

Mayor Shirley Washington says Liberty Utilities, the office of emergency management, the city, and the county were not prepared for the effects of the storm. There are a lot of lessons learned as a result.

"What we're going to do as we move forward is make sure our buildings are retrofitted, and we're also going to make sure that we have an emergency plan for an event of this nature because I don't think anybody was prepared for this," said Washington.

She emphasizes how everyone needs to and has been helping everyone in the community. She says the pressure levels are beginning to go back up, which is making a difference in the water pressure.