U.S. Senate holds hearing on chemical spill - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

U.S. Senate hosts hearing on Charleston, WV chemical spill

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As part of ongoing efforts to address the issues that arose from the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River, state and federal lawmakers heard from two panels Feb. 4 in Washington, D.C.

The panelists consisted of federal and state officials, including state lawmakers, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Secretary Randy Huffman with the Department of Environmental Protection and Michael McNulty, general manager with the Putnam Public Service District. 

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., chairs the subcommittee on Water and Wildlife for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Cardin said Tuesday current law requires risk-assessments of chemicals that may be in the area that affect safe drinking water, but does not provide there be updates or require a plan on protecting an impacted community like Charleston.

"Our laws are just not strong enough to deal with the current situation," he said as he drank from tap water pumped into D.C. from Maryland via the Potomac River, which runs through West Virginia.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, discussed what he called reasonable environmental standards. 

He said they should not be looked upon as "burdens" but rather protections for people and taxpayers. Udall was also concerned with Freedom Industries being held accountable for the spill and making sure state taxpayers will not be forced to pick up the tab.

"We must be vigilant to ensure that these clean-up costs are met by the company," Udall said. "Why is the information about the chemicals leaked so limited and so secretive?

"Why hasn't more testing been done about this chemical so that we know about it's likely health affects, this seems to me to be a key failure of our nation's current chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act?"

Udall said a bill to improve the TSCA is long overdue. 

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, is one of the sponsors of a bill introduced in the United States Senate which passed unanimously, The Chemical Safety Improvement Act. The bill was originally introduced in May 2013.

Manchin spoke to the committee about the fact the state works hard to produce energy and chemicals that power the country, but that cannot come at the cost of access to safe and clean drinking water.

"This spill should have never happened and it is our responsibility in Congress to do everything we can to keep it from happening again, anywhere in America," Manchin said. "That's why I worked with Chairwoman Boxer to develop the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act.

"Our bill would require regular state inspections of all above-ground chemical storage facilities and more frequent inspections of those facilities located near drinking water sources."

Manchin said additionally under the bill, companies must inform the state, EPA and local water systems of where stored chemicals are located.

Under the bill, states would be able to request the EPA prioritize the testing of specific chemicals including those held near waterways. For chemicals like MCHM, the overwhelming lack of health and safety data is one of the criteria for designating a chemical as a "high priority," Manchin said.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also discussed the concerns West Virginians continue to have and their fears the water is simply never going to be good enough.

"West Virginians need answers now," Tennant said. "People are fed up. They are angry, and they are scared."

Tennant said the concern about the safety of the water is continuing to hurt businesses and workers already hit hard by the do-not-use order that lasted several days.

"Our economy cannot recover until we regain public trust and confidence in our water supply," she said. "We need answers we can trust."

Tennant also urged the committee to support a 10-year study to monitor the long-term health implications for community members affected by the exposure to crude MCHM, proposed by Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA., said the real problem with the chemical spill is there are 80,000 chemicals out there officials know nothing about.

"We need to know what they are," she said. "We really missed this and I am sorry about that and unhappy about that and want to work with my colleagues to fix it."

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV said West Virginians are concerned with four things: How did this happen? Is the water safe now? What are the long-term health effects? How do we make sure this never happens again?

Rockefeller said through no fault of their own, 300,000 people have been left with undrinkable water and no trust that it won't happen again.

"I believe in spending money on infrastructure," Rockefeller said. "The idea somehow God has it in His plan to make life safe for you is not true. Industry will cut corners to get away with (regulation)."

Rockefeller noted the people of West Virginia depend on the fruit of the land to live, also noting Mountaineers are making it through -- barely.

Huffman said the legislation proposed through West Virginia Senate Bill 373 would be a step in the right direction. He said the most important aspect for DEP is the requirement to have a qualified individual inspecting tanks. He said the only hazard the tanks were thought to have had was storm water run-off.

"We are optimistic that the legislation currently pending in West Virginia will greatly reduce the risk that we will suffer a repeat of this type of incident," Huffman said. "This crisis reminds us how vulnerable our water supplies are, not only in West Virginia but across the country."

Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health and Food with the Natural Resources Defense Council spoke to the impossibility of West Virginia American Water to shutoff its water intake valve.

"The water intake in Charleston simply cannot be shut off and this is true in many water utilities across the country," Olson said. "They don't have the capacity simply to shut off when there is a spill because they need to continue pumping water."

Olson spoke to the fact there are likely hundreds of other water utility companies across the country that would be overburdened by a chemical such as MCHM getting into the water supply. He said Cincinnati is one city where a water company has taken action to keep chemicals out of the water, adding the cost of the update was simply $20 per household per year.

McNulty also spoke during the hearing.

"The best plan is one that is developed by local officials," McNulty said. "It is not feasible to remove all of the threats from our watershed so we have implemented a number of policies to quickly detect and minimize the affect of a potential spill."

McNulty said constant monitoring of pre-source water is critical.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV, spoke at the hearing on her concerns that the spill continues to affect the residents of the Kanawha Valley.

"It affects restaurants like Mr. Howey in Hurricane, it affects folks who work for him, who are no longer, who are not able to work at this time, and the long-term health effects of the Jan. 9 spill I think are still in question."

Capito said although many questions about the spill continue to linger, a hearing will be held Monday in Charleston to help answer some of the questions and examine not just state but federal laws.

"The other thing is this slow bleed of misinformation," she said. "It does nothing for the confidence of anybody living there or any family there that this situation is under control at all.

"We have a responsibility," Capito said.