Congressional Panel Probes W.Va. Chemical Spill State health officials testified Monday before a House field hearing in West Virginia. The members of Congress asked whether tap water is safe to drink, a month after a major chemical spill.

Congressional Panel Probes W.Va. Chemical Spill

Congressional Panel Probes W.Va. Chemical Spill

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State health officials testified Monday before a House field hearing in West Virginia. The members of Congress asked whether tap water is safe to drink, a month after a major chemical spill.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: I wouldn't drink that water if you paid me.

INSKEEP: That's West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller yesterday, telling NPR he does not trust his own state's water. More than a month has passed since a chemical spill left 300,000 West Virginians without usable tap water. Specifically, residents were told not to drink or cook with the water.

While the ban has been lifted, officials will not declare the water safe to drink. The accident has renewed the debate over regulations versus the environment - that debate in a state where those arguments have usually tilted in one direction.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's a small word, safe. But try as she might, Republican representative Shelley Moore Capito couldn't get witnesses at a congressional hearing in Charleston yesterday to utter it. She tried first with the head of Charleston's water supply company, Jeff McIntyre.



JEFF MCINTYRE: 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.

NAYLOR: Capito then put the question to Letitia Tierney, commissioner of West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources.


CAPITO: Dr. Tierney, is the water safe to drink?

LETITIA TIERNEY: Everybody has a different definition. Am I confident in the science? I'm as confident as I can be, given what we had.

NAYLOR: While the investigation continues into the accident, residents continue to have misgivings about Charleston's water supply.

People still line up at water distribution points, and restaurants serve bottled water with lunch. Sue Davis testified that she's lived in the Kanawha Valley - also known as Chemical Valley - for 71 years.


SUE DAVIS: We simply don't have that much confidence in your water system to begin with, so it's going to be a long time before you restore faith in it again, and you will never have mine.

NAYLOR: West Virginia has long relied on the exploitation of its natural resources to provide its residents with a way to earn a living. If coal is no longer king here, it is still a force to be reckoned with, and the chemical industry also has been a key part of the economy. The federal EPA has been portrayed by some state officials as the enemy. But last month's spill may be changing the equation.

Republican Capito is sponsoring a bill requiring oversight and inspection of chemical storage facilities.

CAPITO: I don't think the point is that anybody wants no regulations. You want regulations that protect the air and the water in a common-sense way, and I think in this instance, we've seen there are enormous gaps both in the state and the local responders and in the federal law. So I think what we need to do is address the regulatory gaps. I think that's what we're expected to do.

NAYLOR: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin famously ran a campaign ad in which he fired a rifle aimed at federal cap and trade legislation. Manchin says what happened with Charleston's water should serve as a wake-up call.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: That there's got to be a balance between the economy and the environment. To a certain extent, there always has been.

NAYLOR: Does this incident, though, show that maybe things are not so much in balance?

MANCHIN: Well, it shows that, basically, throughout the whole country, this could have happened anywhere. It happened right here. We have to anticipate what could happen and prevent it if we can, and be able to handle it if it does. And that's where we are.

NAYLOR: Manchin, too, is sponsoring a bill in the Senate requiring regular inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities. All of this gives a bit of hope to advocates like Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

ANGIE ROSSER: Sadly, it took a catastrophe to get us here, but it's encouraging that light is being shed on some of the systemic problems that we've endured in West Virginia at the cost of our water.

NAYLOR: And many say the water here still contains the telltale odor of licorice associated with the leaked chemical, and they're far from ready to declare it safe.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Charleston.

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