CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the lengthy prepared statements were over, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., opened the question-and-answer session with a predictable query: Is the drinking water supply that serves 300,000 West Virginians safe?
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, dodged. Water companies do not set safety standards, McIntyre said. They just follow them, and West Virginia American is "in compliance with all the standards."
Asked the same question, Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, weaved.
"That's in a way a difficult thing to say, because everybody has a different definition of safe," Tierney said. "As I've used the example before, some people think it's safe to jump off the bridge on Bridge Day. I don't think that's safe. So everybody has a different definition."
The lack of a clear answer left Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., exasperated during a congressional field hearing on the Freedom Industries spill.
"Nobody is going to say it's safe," Manchin said later in the Monday morning hearing. "That's what I'm hearing."
Officials may have tried hard Monday to avoid declaring the water supply "safe," but they effectively did so weeks ago, when they lifted the "do not use" order issued following the Jan. 9 spill of the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River.
Despite more than two hours of testimony, there was little discussion of the available information -- or the unknowns -- that, if focused on publicly, might help residents understand why no one can really answer for certain the question Capito said everyone is asking.
There was little testimony about the huge lack of data about Crude MCHM, or about thousands of other chemicals. There were few, if any, questions about the formula federal public health officials used to come up with an emergency "screening level" of 1 part per million the state used to clear the regional water system for public use.
Only U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso seemed to really want to try to wade into those issues.
"It would be hard to say if it's safe," Moure-Eraso said. "In order to give a scientific answer, you have to have scientific information."
The strongest statement of the day, though, came from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who did not attend the hearing, but issued a statement saying the spill shows the state's political thinking on environmental and public health issues has been all wrong for far too long.
"It is short-sighted to think that last month's spill is an isolated incident," Rockefeller said. "And it is short-sighted to think that proper regulations would in any way stifle business -- the contrary is true.
"It is time to acknowledge that industry is not looking out for you," Rockefeller said. "Too many in industry are driven solely by maximized profits, and this cynical strategy has caused tremendous harm to West Virginians' well-being and has shaken their sense of our state's future."
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure field hearing, held at the Kanawha County Courthouse, was the second congressional hearing to focus on the spill.
Witnesses provided little new information, and delivered opening statements that seemed to focus on how closely various agencies worked together, and how dedicated they all are to keeping residents safe.
Tierney, for example, emphasized again, "Proudly, I was born and raised in West Virginia ... I am honored to be here today to represent the hard-working men and women from across the Bureau for Public Health who work daily on behalf of all West Virginians -- from the healthiest to the most vulnerable in our population."
Jimmy Gianato, director of the state Division of Homeland Security, told lawmakers, "I also feel it is important to recognize the governor and his staff who worked so diligently to support the agencies and the citizens of West Virginia."
The witness list, though, included no average West Virginians -- no business owners or schoolteachers or working mothers -- who might have told lawmakers personal stories about the spill's impacts. Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., did allow public comments at the end of the hearing, but limited those to seven individuals who were given two minutes each.
Witnesses and lawmakers discussed various options for legislation that might help to avoid a repeat of the spill and the water crisis that followed. Barely mentioned was the fact that numerous agencies knew Freedom was storing large quantities of chemicals 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake, but did nothing to try to prevent or plan for such a spill.