Lawmakers open Congressional field hearing on chemical spill - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

LATEST: Officials will not call contaminated water 'safe' during 2 hours of Congressional questioning

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UPDATE, 12:06 p.m., Feb. 10:

Lawmakers questioned panelists until shortly after 11 a.m. Feb. 10 as part of the congressional hearing.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., asked witnesses if the water is safe to drink.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, answered that his company does not set safety standards but is in compliance with all safety standards.

McIntyre said he recognizes the public's fears and the company is working to eliminate the smell of the water.

Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health and State Health Officer, said there are different definitions of the word "safe," but she believes the water is "usable," including for drinking, bathing and cleaning.

McIntyre said his company had enough time to respond to the spill and the plant tried to filter the chemical in plenty of time, but it wasn't enough to stop the chemical, but more information would have been helpful.

Dale Petry, director of the Kanawha County Office of Emergency Services, when asked if the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was satisfactory, said FEMA sent a lot of water that was needed, but he would have liked a quicker response.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., asked Cabell County Office of Emergency Services Director Gordon Merry if he had difficulty talking with West Virginia American Water. Merry said he never communicated with WVAM and spoke instead to Homeland Security. Merry also told Rahall his county spent about $2,000 on water and hand sanitizers and recommends local governments prepare for any 72-hour emergency.

Rahall asked McIntyre about area schools closing because of fumes. McIntyre responded that he couldn't answer that question because the National Guard is handling sampling in the schools, and he knows of non-detect levels at all schools.

Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, when asked about his office's response to schools,  said the Guard is helping the schools flush their systems, and the process is more complicated than for homes.

Gianato said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is working on a plan for home testing, "but the issue is complex," and he said Tomblin wants the plan to be "well thought out."

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., asked if the chemical could adhere to pipes, and if the material makes a difference. Tierney said her office is looking into that question, but complex calculations are involved. She said the EPA is looking into the unique characteristics of the chemical and the unintended effects of its presence.

"The chemical appears to be working the way it should," she said.

Webster asked McIntyre if there was a different protocol for flushing water at businesses that have been vacant for several days. McIntyre said a flushing protocol was created to help homes get below the threshold, and there still is help available for people as they go through the flushing process.

McIntyre stressed that the smell is found in much smaller quantities than the health threshold, so flushing will not always eliminate the odor.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asked Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, if he would drink the water.

Moure-Eraso said there isn't enough information to tell if the water truly is safe and it should be further studied.

Manchin then asked several witnesses if other areas are as vulnerable as Charleston. McIntyre said most other water companies operate with a single intake, and Gianato said mapping all tanks would be the first step in determining if other areas are this vulnerable.

Mike Dorsey, chief of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Homeland Security and Emergency Response, said current laws aren't designed to do what Manchin is suggesting, and there is no rule authority to do a survey or mapping of tanks.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said all the witnesses were "hedging," by not saying the water is safe, but that he understands.

Shuster asked McIntyre why he didn't shut down his facility, and McIntyre said the system had already been stressed by the extremely cold temperatures earlier in the week and it would have run out of water in a matter of 15 minutes to two hours.

McIntyre said it would have taken more than a month to turn the water back on had the system been closed.

Shuster asked both Merry and Petry about their communications with state and federal level officials, and both answered that they had no issues.

During the second round of questions, Dorsey said remediation "never really stopped," and that he wouldn't be surprised to find pools of the chemicals when tanks are moved

Moure-Eraso said he has photographs of the actual break in the tank, and it was two holes — 19 centimeters and 10 centimeters each. He said that part of the tank is being removed "for forensic reasons."

Moure-Eraso said he still is focused on spill protection, and this situation can help to prevent other spills.

Capito asked Tierney to clarify the call for pregnant women to avoid the water, which came days after the "do not use" order was lifted and the agencies told the public the water could be used.

Tierney said the CDC's letter about pregnant women took members of her agency by surprise, and she pressed for more information, specifically asking about the traditionally weaker populations, such as children and the elderly. Tierney said the CDC had originally said its screening level should have been acceptable for those groups.

Dorsey said the DEP had records of inspectors visiting the Freedom Industries Etowah Terminal site about a dozen times for air complaints or other inspections over the years.

Capito asked McIntyre for clarification about why the chemical's odor is more noticeable in hot water, something she said she noticed in the shower.

McIntyre compared it to cooking, but it was something he expected.

Moure-Eraso said when his agency inspected the site in October 2013, the tank that leaked Jan. 9 was not inspected because it didn't contain toxic substances.

"We have all realized something that's non-toxic can bring you to your knees," Capito said.

Dorsey told Manchin, when asked about the amount that leaked, that he received three different sets of numbers from Freedom Industries, so he stopped reporting what the company told him and is now relying on the CSB.

Manchin asked all the witnesses if they had any comments to make to "give the people of this valley some confidence we are moving in the right direction."

Tierney said the state is going to need help from partners at the federal level for testing.

Manchin asked her if she accepted the demand for home testing and long-term health monitoring.

"Absolutely," Tierney responded. "I think all this needs to be done to restore confidence."

McIntyre told Manchin "we have to look at all the options," when Manchin asked him about any plans for another intake or a backup system.

"Can you at least give us a break?" Manchin asked McIntyre, referring to water bills.

McIntyre said customers are continuing to use the water, and the company has given credits to small business and residential customers for more than what they needed to do for the flushing process.

McIntyre said he's been drinking the water since the order was lifted and said Manchin drank the tap water at the plant as well.

"How are you sleeping?" Manchin asked.

"I'm sleeping great," McIntyre responded.

Shuster then said he would allow the public to make statements or ask questions, something not typical for field hearings. Seven people stood to speak and Shuster allowed them two minutes apiece.

Maya Nye, spokeswoman for People Concerned About Chemical Safety, spoke first and said the area has needed long-term health monitoring for years, and while the water intake system should be high on any priority lists for protective measures, she said government shouldn't be short-sighted.

"We need to insist companies like Freedom update their aging infrastructure," she said.

Janet "JT" Thompson, a former Charleston mayoral candidate, asked when the public will stop smelling the water.

Dorsey reiterated that the odor threshold for the chemical is very low, and when the tanks are reviewed, it's likely the community will notice the odors again, but that doesn't mean the chemical will be in the water.

Sue Davis said she had lived in the valley for 71 years.

"We simply don't have that much confidence in the water system to begin with, and it will be a long time before you restore faith in it again," she said. "And you will never have mine."

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said more than tanks should be examined because there are many other potential significant contaminant sources — 50 in Charleston and 424 in Huntington, she said. 

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UPDATE, 11 a.m., Feb. 10:

Members of the committee and guest Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asked their first round of questions to the witnesses.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. went first and focused her questions on the safety of the water now and the emergency response.  Capito asked both Jeff McIntyre and Dr. Letitia Tierney if they could say the water is safe.

McIntyre said that they follow a set standard to determine water safety and said they are in compliance with all safety standards. Tierney said there are different definitions of safe and that she believes the water is usable for drinking, bathing and cleaning.

Dale Petry, director of the Kanawha County Office of Emergency Services, when asked about FEMA's response, said  FEMA sent a lot of needed resources but he would have like a quicker response. 

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., focused his questions towards ongoing testing at homes and schools, asking McIntyre and Jimmy Gianato about recent school closures. Gianato said that Homeland Security has responded to the schools and is still testing to make sure the water is usable. 

Gianato also said that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is working on a plan for home testing but said the process will take time because it is a complicated issue.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., asked about the chances of MCHM adhering to piping. Tierney said  the information they have now shows that there is little chance that MCHM will adhere to pipes but they still testing for "unique situations."

Manchin asked about water safety. Rafael Moure-Eraso answered that there wasn't enough information on the chemical to use the word "safe" but that further study was needed on MCHM. 

Manchin also asked if our water system was similar to others in the country and was told by Jeff McIntyre that many water systems only have one intake but more information could be provided once they have a chance to study other systems.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., began his questioning with a statement on tort reform and how he believes that none of the witnesses will say the water is safe because they are afraid of a lawsuit. 

Shuster asked why the entire water system wasn't shutdown. McIntyre said that it would have been a much longer process to shutdown the system and could have caused damage to the system when they attempted to re-start. 

Shuster focused his questions on emergency response and asked about communication issues among the different organizations. According to the witnesses communication was vital to the process and very few problems were found.

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UPDATE: 10:41 a.m., Feb. 10:

Witnesses for the Congressional field hearing have provided their opening statements.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said there are a few things West Virginians won't take for granted again.

"The chemical sector is vital for the economy, but is hazardous," he said.

He explained that a four-member team has been in the area investigating the water crisis, and members are currently in the midst of their third deployment.

He cited two prior incidents in the area — in 2008 a Bayer CropScience plant explosion and a string of three accidents at DuPont Corporation's Belle chemical manufacturing plant, which included a fatal release of phosgene gas.

He said the board recommended Kanawha County work with the state to create a hazardous release program, and the state considered recommendations, but "due to other circumstances," they hadn't been adopted.

He said in October 2013, Freedom Industries requested a review of its tanks in Charleston and Nitro, and the inspection showed the tanks contained non-hazardous materials, but the CSB determined the secondary walls at both sites held very little protection in the case of a release. His agency also plans to make recommendations to the Toxic Substance Control Act.

Mike Dorsey, chief of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Homeland Security and Emergency Response, said the DEP has been hands-on throughout Freedom Industries' cleaning process.

Dorsey said he arrived at the site with a chemist at 12:15 p.m. Jan. 9 and realized there was a leak that was passing through the company's secondary containment, which was several hours before the "do not use" water advisory was issued.

Dorsey said the chemicals were draining into a swell and company officials placed absorbent boons out to absorb the material, but the chemical was still making it to the river. He explained that West Virginia American Water initially thought activated carbon filters could stop the chemical, and he left the site at 2:45 p.m.

He said remediation efforts are ongoing, and investigations currently are ongoing, which sometimes can slow remediation efforts.

Dorsey also explained the lack of toxicity of the chemical is the reason there is very little information available about it, and said this situation should be "a wake-up call for the nation."

Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he was told about the leak about 10 minutes before it was announced to the public.

He said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made a state of emergency declaration, which activated the National Guard unit specializing in chemical events, and Tomblin also requested 456 trailers of water as well as 100,000 boxed meals.

He said the agencies had to wait for research about PPH, the second chemical that was included in the Freedom Industries tank with MCHM, but the company didn't tell authorities about PPH until 12 days after the spill.

Gianato said the situation could happen in any town that has a similar setup, and it could be used as a lesson to improve emergency response and to prevent future accidents. He also said an "after-action review team" has been ordered by Tomblin to review the emergency response.

Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health and State Health Officer, said in her opening statement the entire Department of Health and Human Resources relies on science and evidence-based medicine for every decision it makes.

She explained that DHHR set up its health and incident mobile command unit as soon as West Virginia American Water issued the "do not use" water advisory, and worked on alerting the public to discontinue its water use.

Tierney said she reached out to the CDC for guidance and for a screening level and focused on sharing information in a timely manner.

She explained that split samples were taken to be sure testing results were consistent at multiple labs.

"The public confidence level in water quality is still low," she said, but explained that the Bureau for Public Health is now working with the CDC to initiate a community assessment study of the potential long-term effects of exposure to the chemicals.

"This is not something we want to get wrong," she said.

Gordon Merry, director of the Cabell County Office of Emergency Services, explained how his county, which was only affected in a small area, responded to the situation.

He detailed how Cabell County Emergency Services retrieved a 400-gallon water buffalo that was filled by the Milton Water Department, which has a separate water system.

Merry also explained how there was no estimation for the arrival of FEMA resources and the area's retail supply of water was dwindling, so he made a decision to send emergency responders into Louisa, Ky. to purchase bottled water and hand sanitizer to be distributed at the Culloden Volunteer Fire Department.

Merry also approached Eagle Distributing for water donations, which was granted, and the company also paid for the shipping costs and the staff to distribute its donated water.

"This report, in no way, documents all the things that were done to ensure the residents of eastern Cabell County had safe water, rather than the process by which a distribution site was established," he said. "It would be impossible to mention all the entities that assisted in this situation."

Dale Petry, director of the Kanawha County Office of Emergency Services, provided a timeline for how his agency was involved as early as 10 a.m. Jan. 9 when Kanawha County Metro 911 received calls of a chemical odor in the area of the split between Interstate 77 and Interstate 79.

"Emergency officials could smell a licorice smell in the area but couldn't find the source," Petry said.

C.W. Sigman, deputy emergency services manager for Kanawha County immediately went to the site, Petry explained, but when he couldn't locate the source of the odor, returned to the office.

"I told him to check the old Pennzoil Plant on Barlow Drive," Petry said. "I was aware of the plant as a source of other chemicals."

Petry said when Sigman arrived at the site, which was home to Freedom Industries, he found two Department of Environmental Protection workers there who said they also received complaints of an odor.

The DEP told Sigman there had been a spill of crude MCHM, and it was handling the situation, so Sigman gave those officials the report he had about the company and left the site.

Petry said at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 9, he received a call from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department about complaint calls it received about a licorice taste in the water, so Petry said his office contacted Homeland Security then activated its EOC to assist with response. Petry said at 8 p.m. that night, officials spoke with Eastman Chemical Company, which manufactures MCHM, and they were told the chemical would wash through the system.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said in his opening statement that his 283 employees who provide water to roughly one-third of the state's population "takes the responsibility of providing clean, safe water very seriously."

McIntyre said he first learned about the spill from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and "took immediate steps to gather more information about the chemical," and augment its treatment.

McIntyre said after the realization that the chemical was not being fully removed, there was a joint decision between his company and the West Virginia Division of Public Health to issue the "do not use" order for several reasons.

McIntyre said a total shut down of the system would have resulted in the loss of basic sanitation capabilities for approximately 300,000 people as well as the loss of fire protection. He also explained that restarting the plant after shutting it down would have been a "prolonged, difficult process," that would have kept people unable to use water longer than the "do not use" order was in place.

McIntyre said he received guidance from the CDC and the EPA throughout, and safety is his top priority and the company's top objective is to reach a level of no detection of MCHM in the distribution system.

"We strive to provide our customers with nothing less than clean, safe drinking water," he said. "We have always supported laws and regulations to promote safe drinking water and we are committed to working with state and federal officials to protect the public health and protect the public from threats," he said.

After the opening statements, the lawmakers were then allowed to ask questions of the witnesses.

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Original story, 09:56 a.m., Feb. 10:

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has opened the Feb. 10 field hearing about the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries spill of chemicals into the Elk River and lawmakers have given their opening statements.

Shuster said a few of the Pennsylvania counties he represents border West Virginia, and he "can only imagine how difficult it's been for the residents of this region for the past month."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the ranking Democratic member of the committee, said he is waiting until after the hearing to throw his support behind any of the legislation being introduced in Congress related to the chemical spill and water safety.

"It is especially important that we hear from the families whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted," Rahall said.

Rahall said there is "a lingering mistrust," that stems from a lack of accurate information that started when the spill happened.

"A lot of people are still trying to do the right thing, and a lot of them will be here today," he said.

Rahall commended Shuster for not allowing party differences to stand in the way of the pursuit of information, and Rahall asked for the hearing's record to be open for 30 days so additions can be made.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., provided her opening statement next and said she expected "confidence" to be the word that is repeated throughout the hearing. She pointed out that Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, was invited to the hearing and did not accept, but she had many questions for him.

"How did you not know for 12 days, or report that a second chemical was in the mixture?" Capito asked, saying the company showed "gross misconduct."

Capito said she has questions for each official gathered at the hearing, including when West Virginia American Water learned of the spill, the state's plan for targeted in-home testing throughout the region and agency plans to inspect similar facilities.

"One of the scariest parts of this incident happened Thursday when the CDC said pregnant women ‘may wish' to avoid the water until all traces of MCHM have been removed," she said.

Capito said she and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wrote to the agency for more clarity, but the response "was severely lacking in the details we needed."

Capito said she planned to introduce the Ensuring Access to Clean Water Act when she returns to Washington, D.C. after the hearing.

Manchin said despite the CDC's determination that the water is "appropriate to drink," he's unsure of the definition of appropriate.

"I'm personally using it," he said. "We have a little townhouse here, and I'm using the water as I normally use it."

Manchin said West Virginia has always worked hard to produce the energy and the chemicals that power the country, but it can't be done at the expense of the safety of the state's water.

"This spill should have never happened," he said. "There's no excuse for it.

"This is a wake up call for this country."

Manchin said he's been working in the U.S. Senate on a bill that would "do things we thought were already being done."

He also said in his opening statement taxpayers should not be forced to pay for any company's damages.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., said he was born in Kanawha County and is a fifth-generation West Virginian with several family members in the region, so he shares the concerns of the region, which has nationwide implications.