The company responsible for West Virginia's chemical spill didn't bother to show up to the congressional hearing

The hearing failed to resolve the question of whether the water is safe to drink

Published February 10, 2014 9:56PM (EST)

Sunday marked the one month anniversary of West Virginia's chemical spill, and on Monday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a congressional hearing to try to figure out what went wrong. Freedom Industries, the company responsible for depriving 300,000 people of their drinking water, didn't bother to show up. In its absence, the hearing managed to confirm what we already knew (this could have been prevented) while failing to provide a satisfactory answer about the biggest question on everyone's mind: whether the water is safe yet. Here's what we learned:

  • The storage facility containing the leaked chemical never should have been built upstream from a water treatment plant in the first place, according to Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the independent safety board. Citing regulation gaps, he told the committee: “The facility just did not need to be where it was.”
  • Freedom Industries ordered its own review of the storage tanks last October, after which environmental consultants determined that the storage units were "not necessarily" in full compliance with EPA and industry standards: they were built on porous ground, and a "last resort" containment wall was improperly constructed.
  • Yes, West Virginians' water still smells like licorice -- a telltale sign of the chemical's presence -- but levels of MCHM in the water are below the safety threshold set by the CDC. West Virginia American Water's Jeff McIntyre explained: “Just because you smell something doesn’t mean it’s not safe.”
  • But that also doesn't mean it is safe. State Bureau of Public Health commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney attempted to give a definite answer thusly: “That’s in a way a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe."
  • Believe it or not, West Virginia American Water customers still don't trust the water. As  Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told Metro News: “It is such a simple, stark, understandable phrase, ‘The drinking water is safe.’ It’s frustrating that nobody could say that today!”
  • Bankrupt Freedom Industries is "focused exclusively on remediation of the spill," according to the company's lawyer, attempting explain why it failed to send a representative to the hearing. An alternative explanation, provided by Capito: "Freedom Industries' decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Freedom Industries Shelley Moore Capito U.s. Congress West Virginia Chemical Spill