CHARLESTON - Several stakeholders in last month's chemical spill said 300,000 affected West Virginians can use their running water however they please. But no one ventured to tell federal lawmakers Monday that the water is "safe."
The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard testimony from government and water officials at a hearing Monday in Charleston. Almost exactly a month after the Jan. 9 spill, state and federal decision makers who lifted a water-use ban weeks ago emphasize the water met necessary scientific criteria.
State health officer Dr. Letitia Tierney said she is confident in the standard, but everyone has a different idea of what is safe. For instance, she said West Virginians can choose to base jump more than 800 feet off a bridge once a year.
"Some people think it's safe to jump off a bridge on Bridge Day," Tierney said. "I don't personally think that's safe."
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the Republican committee chairman from Pennsylvania, speculated that it's more of a legal maneuver not to label the water safe.
"I suspect the main reason is everyone is afraid they're going to get sued," Shuster said.
Out of about 60 members on the congressional committee, four representatives attended - Shuster, Daniel Webster, R-Fla., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also asked questions with the panel.
The two-hour hearing included officials from the private water company affected, state health and environmental agencies, the federal chemical board, county emergency departments and West Virginia's homeland security agency.
Despite receiving an invitation, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern did not attend. Since the company spilled its licorice-smelling chemical into the Elk River, Southern has appeared publicly twice - at a news conference the day after the spill and in federal bankruptcy court on Jan. 21. Under bankruptcy proceedings, the company is temporarily shielded from dozens of lawsuits, many by businesses that lost money while shuttered during the water-use ban.
"There is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries, and it's not licorice," Rahall said. "We cannot legislate morality into the billionaire corporate courtrooms where shell game playing abounds."
U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso also revealed that Freedom Industries knew of inadequacies months ago. The company ordered its own review of its tanks last October.
Hired environmental consultants found storage units at the Charleston location were "not necessarily" in full compliance with Environmental Protection Agency and industry standards. They found the same issue at a second Freedom Industries site in Nitro.
The chemicals that spilled were deemed "non-hazardous" and aren't regulated under federal law.
Moure-Eraso also said the tank that spilled was situated on porous gravel and soil. A last resort containment wall wasn't lined and provided little protection.
New Chemical Safety Board findings also show two small holes, about 19 and 10 centimeters each, in the tank that leaked. Originally, state environmental regulators described a 1-inch hole.
Moure-Eraso commented that the chemical board has responded to two other chemical disasters in the Kanawha Valley since 2008. Its subsequent recommendations for West Virginia to adopt a hazardous chemical release prevention program have not been adopted. The proposal would incorporate a variety of departments at multiple levels of government to prepare for spills.
"Perhaps qualified inspectors would have considered aging chemical storage tanks, located just upstream from a public drinking water treatment plant, to be potentially 'highly hazardous' and worthy of a closer look," Moure-Eraso said in a statement.