When can Municipal Water Utilities Disconnect Service?

The recent decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in Colchester County v. Wall, 2018 NSCA 67, provides a good reminder of the process to be followed when a public water utility wants to disconnect service.

In that case, the municipal water utility gave certain customers nine months’ notice that it was disconnecting their water service because of inadequate water pressure and risk of bacteria.  The utility’s Rules and Regulations specifically authorize it to disconnect service where there is a risk of contamination.  They state:

DANGEROUS CONNECTIONS: No connection shall be permitted to any installation; equipment or source in such a manner as may allow any contamination to pass from such installation, equipment or source into the Utility’s water supply system.  If any such connection exists the Utility may discontinue the supply of water to such customer.

The customers appealed the notice to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (the “Board”) arguing that Section 53 of the Public Utilities Act required the utility to obtain Board approval prior to disconnecting service, which did not happen.  Section 53 states:

No public utility shall abandon any part of its line or lines, or works, after the same has been operated, without notice to the Board, and without the consent in writing of the Board, which consent shall only be given after notice to the city, town or municipality interested and after due inquiry had.

The Board found that in the particular circumstances of this case the utility was seeking to abandon its lines to those customers and under s. 53 Board approval was required.  This is because the disconnection would have permanent affect.  The decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

This case is important because it draws a key distinction between disconnections that require Board approval and those that do not.

All public water utilities in Nova Scotia are regulated by the Board.  The Board sets rates and the rules and regulations that apply to each utility.  The rules and regulations expressly give utilities the authority to disconnect service in many situations, including failure to pay bills, where plumbing does not meet appropriate standards and generally where a customer is in violation of the rules and regulations.  Although the utility has the authority to disconnect service in these situations it must re-establish service once the customer corrects the violation.  As long as service must be re-established once the customer corrects the violation the disconnection will be considered temporary and will not be seen as the utility abandoning, i.e. permanently disconnecting, its lines under s. 53 and Board approval will not be required.

Determining whether a proposed disconnection requires Board approval will turn on the particular facts of each situation.  If there is any doubt the utility should seek legal advice or contact the Board.