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Congress taps into West Virginia’s water crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – West Virginia’s water crisis took center stage on Capitol Hill Tuesday. The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife got the details about the MCHM spill that happened at Freedom Industries.

A large crowd gathered at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday for the committee hearing on the West Virginia water emergency.

Senators Barbara Boxer, (D) CA, Tom Udall, (D) NM and David Vitter, (R) LA listened and asked questions during the two-hour hearing. It was focused on the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act crafted by Boxer and U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller. It’s aimed at protecting Americans from chemical spills like the one in West Virginia January 9 that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians in parts of nine counties.

(See archive of Senate hearing here)

Second District Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito vented her frustration to the committee.

“I’m a mother. I’m a grandmother. I live in the Kanawha Valley. I understand the fear, trepidation and anger the people feel because I feel it too,” Capito said. “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this where people are trusting that their tap water is safe and it won’t happen again.”

Capito along with Third District Congressman Nick Rahall and U.S. Senators Jay Rockefeller and Manchin all spoke before the committee.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also testified. Her comments focused on the impact on businesses and residents.

“Our confidence has been shattered. I received a letter from a father whose wife is pregnant. This is supposed to be a joyful time. It’s now turned into a fearful time for them,” said Tennant.

Sen. Boxer made it known she felt strongly the bill needs to move forward in the Senate and the House.

“If a chemical is stored by a drinking water supply and could get into the water I think we should prioritize it.”

However, Richard Faulk, a Washington, D.C. lawyer, spoke out against moving too quickly on the proposed bill.

“Should we really rush immediately into federal legislation? I think we should be cautious,” he explained. “Complex accidents generate a fog simply burdened by the sheer weight of information mixed with all the shock and alarm and confusion sometimes that can obscure clear deliberations.”

The committee members agreed nothing should be rushed but there is a need for action. Sen. Boxer posed this question to Brent Fewell, Vice President of Environmental Compliance for United Water, the organization that oversees tens of thousands of above ground tanks across the country.

“Do you have any clue as to how many above ground storage tanks with chemicals in them? How many of those are located along water supplies?”

Fewell’s responded, “I don’t know the number.”

Boxer said that’s reason enough to move forward with the bill and she came down hard on Freedom Industries, blaming the company for the water crisis.

“You’ve got a rogue operator like this who absolutely is…they’re cowards,” she stated. “And running away and leaving the people is an outrage! An absolute outrage!”

Sen. Udall said West Virginians shouldn’t have to live in fear.

“Our hearts go out to the citizens of West Virginia who have suffered enormous anxiety for weeks now in the face of uncertainties about the risk posed by contact with MCHM.”

Udall stressed this is a wake-up call for the rest of the country and Congress that something must be done to prevent another chemical spill from contaminating a major water supply.

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