Rep. Capito: Chemical Spill Hearing Opening Statement

Updated 9 weeks ago

“Mr. Chairman:

“Thank you for convening today’s hearing and for coming to West Virginia. The chemical spill at Freedom Industries just a few miles from where we sit this morning has had a devastating impact on the people in this room and on 300,000 others across a nine-county region. Small businesses were forced to close their doors, employees went without paychecks, and residents went without potable water. Our community is angry, anxious, and needs answers about how this spill occurred, the health effects, and how we can prevent similar incidents.

“We are here to consider all parts of the response to the spill. Last week, 14 schools in Kanawha County reported smelling the odor, three schools were closed as a result, and several illnesses were reported. These events demonstrate that a month after the spill, the after effects continue.

“I live here in Charleston, and I use the water myself. Like everyone in this room, and everyone in this community, we want to have the confidence that the water coming out of our faucets is safe for our families. Many West Virginians lack that confidence today. I requested today’s hearing because asking questions of the officials responsible for responding to this spill and hearing their answers in a public forum is a critical part of restoring public confidence.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to ask questions of all of the relevant parties today. Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries, was invited to appear before this committee. We gave Freedom the opportunity to answer this committee’s questions – questions that residents across our community have also been asking – and to explain its many failures that have hurt so many families and businesses.

“He chose not to be here today to answer for what his company has done to the people of West Virginia. And I find that extremely telling.

“If Gary Southern or a representative of Freedom Industries had the courage to come before the committee today, I would have asked:

“When did you learn that a chemical was leaking from a tank at your facility? Why did it take so long to report the spill? How did you not know for 12 days that a second chemical was part of the mixture? Do you accept any responsibility for the catastrophic harm that you caused our community?

“Freedom Industries’ decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill.

“With that, I want to thank the witnesses who are actually appearing before the committee today to help us gain a better understanding of what happened on Jan. 9 at Freedom Industries. Each of them has important information that will help us better understand this incident and the response.

“We need to learn from West Virginia American Water when it learned of Freedom’s spill, how it made its decision to keep water flowing, and why the company did not know in advance of the spill what types of chemicals were stored in tanks just up river from the water intake.

“We need to learn from our local first responders how they mobilized to provide access to safe water and what additional information, authorities, and resources could improve response in future incidents.

“From the Division of Homeland Security, we need to know the current status of water testing in public facilities around the impacted areas and the state’s plans for targeted in home testing around the region. Many are concerned about flushing protocols, and we need to know of the successes and failures in cleaning up the water system.

“From the Department of Environmental Protection, we need to learn about the initial response to Freedom Industries site, the agency’s plans to inspect similar facilities in the future, and the implementation of both state and federal environmental laws.

“From the Department of Health and Human Resources, we need to learn how testing protocols and safety standards were established and make sure that people are provided accurate and timely information about the safety of our water supply.

“One of the scariest parts of this incident for many people came when the CDC advised that pregnant women ‘may wish’ to avoid the water until all traces of MCHM were removed, after first announcing a universally applicable safe standard. Senator Manchin and I wrote to the CDC demanding answers regarding that agency’s confidence in the health impact study it created, because the Jan. 16 letter written by that agency certainly appeared to back track from the agency’s initial standard.

“The committee invited the CDC to come here today and explain their methodology. And while the CDC rejected the committee’s invitation, the agency is ultimately working in an advisory role in assisting the state of West Virginia, and we can learn from participation of state officials in setting the no-health-impact standards.

“Finally, from the Chemical Safety Board, we need to gain perspective on how this incident occurred and how to prevent future incidents.

“There is no question that Freedom Industries is a bad actor, and the company should bear – must bear – the blame for what has happened to 300,000 West Virginians in the last month. Government oversight, however, must be strong enough to keep a company like Freedom from causing this type of harm.

“State environmental programs are often prompted by requirements in federal law, including requirements in the Clean Water Act that falls under the jurisdiction of this committee.

“In order to spur the development of state programs around the country to inspect and oversee aboveground storage tanks at chemical storage facilities, I will introduce the Ensuring Access to Clean Water Act when I return to Washington this evening. This bill requires the inspection of aboveground storage tanks like the one that leaked at Freedom Industries, creates standards for the oversight of chemical storage facilities, and ensures that water utilities are given information about chemicals stored upstream, together with a plan for how to address an emergency situation.

“The West Virginia legislature is considering legislation to address this issue at the state level, and Senator Manchin has sponsored legislation in the Senate that is similar to the bill that I will introduce tonight. Through these efforts, we can not only make sure that West Virginia’s water is safe, but that the rest of the nation learns from the experience we have endured over the past month.

“Mr. Chairman – I again thank you for holding today’s hearing, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.”

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