The two hour field hearing by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure began Monday with opening remarks where witnesses, recounted their company’s or agency’s response immediately following the discovery of the leak.
Lawmakers, however, were focused on the fact the Freedom Industries’ President Gary Southern, invited to testify, didn't attend.
“Mr. Chairman, there is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries and it’s not licorice. We cannot legislate morality into the billionaire corporate boardrooms where shell game playing abounds," said Rep. Nick Rahall.
“Their decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by the spill," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
“First of all, it’s just unconscionable that Freedom, that Freedom Industry could not have known about the leak, did not report the leak and did not know how much the leak had happened. It’s unconscionable for me to believe that," said Sen. Joe Manchin.
As questioning began, one question persisted: Is the water safe to drink?
Capito solicited responses from Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, and Dr. Letitia Teirney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health.
“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 like the CDC, the West Virginian Bureau of Public Health and we have been since the 13th of January,” McIntyre said. “Yet, I recognize the customer’s fear associated with the smell of something in their water.”
“Everybody has a different definition of safe. As I used an example before, some people think it’s safe to jump off the bridge on Bridge Day,” Tierney said. “I don’t personally think that’s safe so everybody has a different definition. Am I confident in the science, I’m as confident as I can be based on what we had.”
“The panel sitting here, nobody’s willing to say that the water’s safe, categorically say its safe, and I’m not going to ask you again because I think everybody is going to dance around the question,” said Committee Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. “I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect the main reason why is that everybody’s afraid they’re going to get sued.”
McIntyre told the committee he did not know why the licorice smell in schools was being connected with children and staff fainting and complaining of itchy eyes and noses.
Director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Jimmy Gianato testified National Guard teams were finding issues concentrated in school cafeterias, where large amounts of water were being heated to wash dishes, but Gianato, like McIntyre, said schools were all testing well below the CDC recommended health standard.
Through all the remarks and questioning, lawmakers were focused on restoring the public’s trust in the water. Some have proposed doing so through legislation designed to prevent future spills.
Senator Manchin introduced legislation in the Senate last month regulating above ground storage facilities, and Representative Capito planned to introduce her version of the legislation in the house Monday night.