West Virginia officials avoid calling state’s water safe

In congressional field hearing, politicians say that while water is officially drinkable, significant questions remain

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee heard testimony from government and water officials at a hearing Monday in Charleston, W.Va., almost a month after the Jan. 9 chemical spill.
Kenny Kemp/Charleston Gazette/AP

A month after one of the most dramatic and disruptive chemical spills in the state's history, West Virginia is still dealing with lingering questions about the safety of its drinking water, an issue that was front and center in a rare congressional hearing held outside Washington, D.C., Monday in West Virginia.

Though state officials lifted drinking-water restrictions on Jan. 19 and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Feb. 5 that the water was "appropriate for use," a public hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Charleston discussed the consequences of the Jan. 9 coal-processing chemical spill that prompted restrictions on drinking and using tap water for 300,000 people in nine counties. 

During the hearing, committee members were surprised to learn from the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that an inspection three months before the Jan. 9 spill revealed that the storage tanks at Freedom Industries did not meet federal and industry standards.

"We are able to measure what it has cost to the state of West Virginia to have this incident in terms of money lost and income lost and anguish to the people," said Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso.

"To really address the storage of chemicals in tanks will be a small cost," he said.

Moure-Eraso told Al Jazeera's "America Tonight" that more studies need to be conducted on MCHM — the primary chemical component of the spill — to determine what effect the water has on humans, calling it a national problem.

West Virginia officials who testified Monday stopped short of calling the region's water safe, though the lawmakers orchestrating the hearing said they were drinking it without worry.

"Am I confident in the science? I'm as confident as I can be, given what we had," said Dr. Letitia Tierney of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health. "You know, I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose, and that includes drinking, bathing and cooking."

She added, "Everybody has a different definition of 'safe,'" before noting that she drinks the water.

Jeff McIntyre, president of the local water supplier West Virginia American Water, told the panel that that it didn't determine the government rules for water.

"As a water company, we don't set the safe standards. But we are in compliance with all the standards set by the health-based agencies."

But many state residents say they're still avoiding it, with some saying it retains the chemical's distinct licorice smell. Some said they wouldn't dare drink from their taps.

West Virginia resident Sue Davis, 71, told lawmakers that she'll "never" have faith again in her tap water, charging that it burned her.

Meanwhile Gary Southern, CEO of Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the chemical spill, received an invitation to the hearing but did not attend, prompting Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., to say the company had "no courage."

"There is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries, and it's not licorice. We cannot legislate morality into the billionaire corporate courtrooms where shell-game playing abounds," Rahall said.

He was joined by his West Virginia colleagues Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. 

West Virginia's senior senator, Democrat Jay Rockefeller, also had harsh words for how industry in general behaves in the Mountain State, which has seen the economic benefits as well as the ecological risks posed by the coal and chemical industries.

Rockefeller did not attend the hearing in person but issued a statement.

"We have learned the hard way that it is dangerous to simply rely on industry to do the right thing. Industry has long resisted new regulations or stronger enforcement measures," he said. "It is short-sighted to think that last month's spill is an isolated incident in West Virginia."

Looking beyond his state's experience, Manchin said that a chemical spill of this magnitude could happen anywhere in the United States. "We were on the front end of this. But it's a wake-up call for the rest of the country," he said.

In West Virginia, where water distribution sites remain open and public faith in the safety of water and the effectiveness of government plummets, new regulations are being proposed — locally and at the federal level.

On Monday, Capito introduced the Ensuring Access to Clean Water Act, which would require oversight and inspection of chemical storage facilities and aboveground tanks. A similar bill in the Senate has been introduced by Manchin, Rockefeller and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

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