W.Va. congressional delegation calls for action
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As hundreds of thousands of West Virginians enter their seventh day without usable water, the state's congressional delegation is calling for action, but generally not abandoning the pro-industry tone that often dominates Mountain State politics.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he would move to reintroduce a stalled bill that would reform the way the nation regulates hazardous chemicals, such as the 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol that leaked into the Elk River last week.
Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., both said they would call on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to hold a full hearing in Charleston to discuss the leak. Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he had spoken with committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and he thought the Charleston hearing was "very likely" to happen.
But in phone interviews Tuesday, all three lawmakers took pains to distance the chemical that spilled -- which is used to process coal -- from the state's coal industry.
"When you're mining the coal, to the residuals of coal, everything has to be done in the safest manner possible," Manchin said. "I don't anticipate anything [legislation] directly related to coal ... . Whether it's coal or chemicals or fertilizer or food products, it should be under the same scenario.
Capito said Southern West Virginia was still under "great pressures to discontinue the use and mining" of coal and that she would not halt her calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to ease back on environmental regulations.
"The incident that happened with this spill is not related to my view of the EPA, of overreaching and not looking at economics and trying to reach a balance in the energy industries," Capito said. "I see this as a chemical issue, and so the coal issue is secondary. It's a product used in the coal industry."
Rahall also said he would not change his stance on environmental regulations.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., did not respond to an interview request, although his spokesman sent a statement saying safety needed to take top priority and people should not jump to any conclusions.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also did not respond to an interview request, but sent a statement calling the lack of inspection of Freedom Industries, the company where the chemical leaked, unacceptable and disturbing.
"I often hear complaints that regulations are too costly or that industries should be allowed to regulate themselves," he wrote. "Clearly this approach has failed hundreds of thousands of West Virginians."
Rockefeller has, in the days since the spill, pushed for more involvement from federal agencies. Two days after the leak he requested that the federal Chemical Safety Board investigate the leak. A team from the CSB arrived on the site on Monday.
The CSB has been in West Virginia several times in the last few years, specifically after fatal chemical-related incidents at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute and the DuPont Co. plant in Belle.
After both of those incidents, the CSB recommended that the state Department of Health and Human Resources assist the local health department in creating a chemical accident prevention plan that would inspect facilities and require those facilities to have plans in place to prevent accidents.
Those recommendations have not been taken up.
On Tuesday, only Capito was willing to say without reservation that the state should adopt the CSB's recommendation.
"I hope the state adopts an immediate report protocol that's been recommended by the CSB," she said. "We could have saved ourselves a lot of time if we'd known how to test for it, if we'd known it was there, if it had been reported quickly."
Manchin said that he'd like to look for consensus before embracing the CSB's recommendations.
"The pushback that's in a lot of people from the industry, and a lot of different groups crisscrossing America, believe that that was an overreach, or whatever, either that was too stringent or an overreach, or things they couldn't comply with," he said.
Rahall said he would like to wait for the current CSB investigation to conclude. He said that the previous recommendations could potentially be used as a "building block."
He noted that the two deaths at Bayer came from an explosion and a fire and that the death at DuPont came from a phosgene gas leak, while the current water crisis is the result of a chemical leak.
"There are also differences that indicate that a one-size-fits-all solution might not be effective," he said.
Also on Tuesday, Rockefeller sent a letter to the administrator of the EPA and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requesting a study of long-term health risks associated with the spill.
The EPA sent a prepared statement saying it was helping the state but has not responded to repeated interview requests. The CDC has not responded to repeated requests for comment regarding how they arrived at the threshold of 1 part per million of Crude MCHM, the chemical that leaked, being a safe level for drinking water.
Manchin said Tuesday that he would move to reintroduce a bill that would require further evaluation of the thousands of industrial chemicals in use that government agencies know very little about.
Manchin plans to reintroduce a stalled version of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would require the EPA to review all 84,000 existing chemicals in its inventory and label them as "high" or "low" priority based on potential health and environmental risks. The EPA would then have to conduct further research on high-priority chemicals. It would also require the EPA to screen new chemicals entering the market.
When the bipartisan bill was written in May, Manchin was given credit for brokering a deal between the two parties.
"We don't have any oversight on so many products that have come on the market in the last 30 years which we call toxic," Manchin said Tuesday. "I just basically said, 'My God, you've got thousands and thousands of products that have come on line that are totally, you know, unevaluated.' We don't know where we stand with this and we use them every day."
The stalled version of the bill includes no enforceable deadlines and no minimum requirements for chemicals screened per year.
Capito said she would support the bill. "If we talk about bringing it back, I think that's probably a very good idea," she said.
Rahall said that it was too soon to consider potential legislation.
"If this were a mine accident, for example, and miners were still underground, we would not be talking about legislation, we would be talking about getting the miners to safety," he said. "So let's get the water service restored and the situation under control to ensure the health and safety of the people."
On Thursday, the day the chemical leak at Freedom Industries was discovered, the U.S. House passed a bill called the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act. All three West Virginia representatives voted for it.
The bill, which passed mostly on party lines (Rahall was one of five Democrats who voted for it), would change the Superfund law, which is supposed to ensure that corporations that release hazardous waste help pay for the cleanup.
A coalition of 129 public-interest groups wrote a letter to every member of the House opposing the bill.
They wrote that the bill is "a package of three bills that threaten human health and the environment while protecting polluters from liability for the costs of toxic cleanups ... in a manner that substantially increases the potential for harm in communities across the United States."
On Tuesday, both Capito and Rahall said they saw the bill differently and neither regretted their "yes" vote. Both representatives said the bill would eliminate bureaucracy and let states clean up sites quicker.
The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, scores every member of Congress on their voting record for environmental issues, including public health, public lands, energy, global warming, energy and wildlife conservation.
In its most recent scorecard, the League called the 2012 Republican-led House of Representatives "the most anti-environmental House in our nation's history."
The league gave Capito a 9 percent score in 2012 and a 23 percent lifetime score.
They gave Rahall a 51 percent score in 2012 and a 65 percent lifetime score.
They saved their lowest marks for McKinley, giving him a 6 percent score in 2012 and a 9 percent lifetime score.
The League gave Manchin a 50 percent score in 2012 and a 54 percent lifetime score.
Rockefeller was the only member of West Virginia's congressional delegation to get a passing grade: 100 percent in 2012, and 82 percent for his Senate career.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.
Reach David Gutman at 304-348-5119 or email@example.com.