February 09, 2014

RAHALL: "People have a basic right to know whether or not their water supplies are safe"

The Honorable Nick J. Rahall, II

Ranking Member

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Field Hearing on

"The Charleston West Virginia Chemical Spill"

February 10, 2014

Thank you, Chairman Shuster, for your kind accommodation of my request to come to West Virginia to examine the recent spill of chemicals into the Elk River. We could have held this hearing in Washington, as other Committees have or are planning to do, but I felt, as you’ve just stated you feel, that it was especially important that we be here, among the families whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted.

Yesterday marked one month since chemicals leaked from a storage tank at Freedom Industries into the Elk.  One solid month since the spill, yet still -- and rightly so -- I hear a lingering worry among my constituents. 

Some of that clearly stems from a lack of accurate information at the start, most of which can be traced directly to a financially troubled business with deteriorating facilities and critically lax safety standards.

When State DEP officials arrived at the Freedom Industries site following a trail of strong licorice scent, workers there didn’t even know they had a leak. When workers were shown the pooling chemical and told to report the leak, they resisted.

When they finally did report the leak, they claimed the chemical was not spilling into the river - wrong.  

First responders, the water company, public health officials, all thought they were dealing with one chemical based on information obtained from the company -information that was wrong.

Mr. Chairman, there were distressing blind spots and errors long before this spill. But on January 9th, confronted with this disaster, a lot of people tried to do the right thing.  A lot of people are still trying to do the right thing.  Some of them are here with us today. They have been the target of criticism and anger.  And, yet, they came here today to answer and re-answer questions and take their lumps.  

I think it speaks volumes that the one entity that is not here, the one empty seat at that witness table, belongs to the one entity at the epicenter of all of this.  The one who totally blew it and then gave the bad information on which every effort to respond to the spill was built.

Mr. Chairman, there is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries, but it's not licorice. We cannot legislate morality into the billionaire corporate courtrooms where shell game playing abounds.

I share the worry and frustration I see in the faces all around this room.  I understand the shaken confidence.  Were mistakes made? Yes.   Are there loopholes in the law that must be closed?  Yes.

As Chairman Shuster noted, we are here to listen and learn and do all that we can to help prevent this type of crisis from recurring. I have chosen not to endorse legislative proposals until AFTER this hearing in WV. I wanted to hear FIRST from those at this hearing. I want to ensure that any effort by Congress is as thorough as possible and that the Federal government not place demands from on high, but work with our State and local governments. 

A cloud of suspicion and fear may be hanging over this region for some time. But, speaking as a West Virginian, I hope we can channel those energies into positive change for our State.

Above all, communities, businesses, and families deserve definitive answers. People have a basic right to know and government has a fundamental obligation to inform the public whether or not their water supplies are safe.

Mr. Chairman, in a Congress that is so often divided, you have not let party stand between us in working to address the needs of the people we serve. Thank you, again, for your interest in the families harmed by this crisis and your courtesies in convening this hearing today.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent that the record for today’s hearing be open to ensure that West Virginians, who will not able to testify, also have an opportunity to submit written statements to be made part of the formal record of today’s hearing.