CHARLESTON, W.Va. - More than a month after the Freedom Industries chemical spill, none of the seven officials testifying at a congressional hearing in Charleston Monday could say whether the area's water supply is safe.
"That is a difficult thing to say because everyone has a different definition of safe," said Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health.
Federal lawmakers leading the hearing also learned a private company's October inspection of Freedom's tank farm along the Elk River found its tanks weren't "necessarily in full compliance" with federal standards.
The chemical spill, discovered by the state on Jan. 9, eventually overwhelmed the local West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant. That resulted in a do-not-use order for more than 15 percent of West Virginia's population.
Tierney was one of several state and local officials to testify Monday. Water company president Jeff McIntyre and Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chemical Safety Board chairman, also testified.
They appeared before four members of the nearly 60-member U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., led the hearing at the Kanawha County Courthouse and was joined by Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Daniel Webster, R-Fla. Webster is a Kanawha County native.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was also invited and allowed to ask questions.
Freedom President Gary Southern and members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were also invited but did not attend. All of the West Virginia lawmakers chastised Southern for not attending.
"There is an odor emanating from Freedom Industries, and it's not licorice," Rahall said.
After the hearing, Capito said she thought the testimony from those who did attend was beneficial.
"The biggest takeaway, however, is the disconcerting fact that no one is willing to say that our water is safe to drink," she said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.
In his opening statements, Shuster said the committee came to Charleston to hear firsthand what happened after the spill. He said he thought it was clear officials were "hedging" over the water's safety.
"Nobody sitting here is willing to say the water is safe," Shuster said, guessing it was an effort to avoid potential lawsuits.
Moure-Eraso didn't deny that. He said it takes plenty of information about a chemical to make such a claim, and there's still little known about crude MCHM and PPH.
That's part of the problem in effectively regulating tanks that hold such chemicals, officials said.
The professional inspectors who looked at Freedom's tanks used a safety standard that applies to "hazardous" chemicals. Because neither crude MCHM nor PPH are deemed "hazardous," tanks holding those chemicals aren't effectively regulated, Moure-Eraso said.
The lack of a "hazardous" classification also seemed to placate state environmental officials.
"Before the Freedom Industries release, the general thought process was that if the material in a given tank wasn't regulated by any of the multitude of state or federal programs, then it was probably harmless to both the public health and environment," state Department of Environmental Protection official Mike Dorsey said during the hearing.
"The fallacy of that type of assumption is clear now."
No one could say why students, teachers and others recently passed out or felt sick after encountering the telltale licorice odor of crude MCHM in area schools.
Tierney had made a comment about differing definitions of "safe" before. On Monday, she added the idea that some people think parachuting off a bridge is safe.
McIntyre reiterated the "flushing" procedure was created for homes to bring the water within the 1 part per million "safe" level established by the CDC and not to eliminate odors.
"Just because you can smell something doesn't mean it's not safe," McIntyre said.
Manchin said he was surprised the water company couldn't shut down its treatment center. Dorsey testified not shutting it down "certainly compounded the problem."