Click here or the image above to watch Ranking Member Capito’s opening remarks from the committee hearing.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing titled, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment in the Wake of the Norfolk Southern Train Derailment and Chemical Release in East Palestine, Ohio.”
Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) as delivered.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank all of you for being here today. I’m really pleased we have the hearing and we have our fellow senators with us as well.
“As you said, we’re going to discuss the ongoing environmental response to a large-scale chemical spill resulting from a Norfolk-Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which is 14 miles north of the West Virginia border.
“Before we go any further, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the emergency responders who were on the scene less than an hour after the incident was reported and are continuing to work diligently on cleanup efforts. Thank you all so much.
“These kinds of accidents are some of the toughest days for them because these men and women, these are their neighbors. In some cases their relatives, and certainly their hometown friends.
“It weighs on all of us here, this catastrophe upended the lives of thousands of our constituents in states represented today.
“The residents of East Palestine, and other impacted communities, including those in West Virginia, deserve the chance to hear publicly from those involved in, and affected by, the cleanup efforts.
“They need to know what progress has been made, the challenges that lay ahead, and what lessons can be learned to improve future responses.
“From day one, responders across all levels of government, as well as the private sector, have worked around-the-clock on monitoring and mitigation to keep the public and environment safe.
“I appreciate EPA and other relevant organizations for providing regular updates to Congress on the status of the response.
“However, I want to convey to all of you that the public deserved a better level of transparency, and much, much sooner.
“A month after the accident, it’s clear to me that EPA’s risk communication strategy fell short.
“In the immediate aftermath of the incident, impacted communities were clamoring for answers.
“While we are well aware that monitoring efforts and response planning need to be sound, we need to understand why it took so long for the EPA to get accurate data to the public.
“This is especially true when organizations like the Ohio EPA and the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), both represented on our panel today, managed to provide data and safety information to the public quicker.
“That even includes, they were distributing EPA data faster than the agency itself was willing to, not only with the public but also during briefings and conversations with the affected congressional offices.
“In the absence of adequate transparency to the public, that just opens up a gap for social media, armchair citizen scientists, and political pundits on both sides to fuel false narratives that have further undermined public confidence in the response to the derailment.
“With each week’s passing, the confusion seemed to grow.
“Even after weeks of repeated air, soil, and water monitoring have shown levels of the implicated contaminants of magnitude well below the ATSDR and EPA’s levels of concern in the air and water, the initial delays in messaging and response has meant that the residents still do not trust these results enough to feel safe.
“And trust is essential in these situations.
“That has been made worse by a lot of the misinformation that we’ve seen.
“You can’t address fear and mistrust by pointing residents to an EPA website filled with fact sheets and press releases.
“Risk communication needs to be done in a clear but compassionate, relatable manner right down there where it’s happening.
“So, why did it take weeks for the EPA administrator to drink the water he repeatedly told East Palestine residents was safe?
“Why did it take almost a month to establish a response center and go door-to-door to [address] East Palestine families’ concerns?
“As a result of early missteps, I believe that we need to keep moving forward here.
“This Committee must get to the bottom of whether EPA even has some of the authorities for some of the actions that its taken on the removal and whether they are serving the best interests of our constituents.
“How will EPA approving every shovelful of dirt that is moved benefit safety or expedite the process?
“These are the questions I’m going to have.
“How and why is EPA prohibiting contaminated soil and water from leaving the state of Ohio into qualified destruction facilities, how is that going to improve outcomes?
“I am concerned that at least one of the Ohio facilities EPA is now activating for this purpose has a history of Clean Air Act violations and may not be able to sufficiently destroy contaminated soils in way that assures communities may not be further impacted by emissions resulting from incomplete incineration.
“The EPA has been slow to respond to our office’s inquiries on the use of PFAS-based firefighting foams in combating the fire, nor explaining how residues from those foams may be responsible for some of the purported pollution that has made the rounds.
“The EPA could have also made abundantly clear that Norfolk-Southern would be completely liable and that no expense would be spared in the cleanup efforts that’s required by the law.
“Instead it took weeks for the average American not well-versed in the nuances of CERCLA, which is the act that covers this, to receive that assurance.
“Mr. Shaw, from Norfolk-Southern, will be on our panel, and I look forward to hearing from you on what Norfolk-Southern is doing to make things right.
“But as you know and as you stated in your statement, your company will pay for the harm it has caused. And is paying.
“It will pay for the initial cleanup and likely pay again when the lawsuits from the myriad harms caused begin to come in, though how much will be a matter for the courts.
“Your culpability in this incident and the liabilities that will result are clearly defined in the statute known as CERCLA.
“And the liabilities for Norfolk-Southern under CERCLA are among the broadest and strictest in any federal law.
“Before Congress considers any changes to existing laws, we must better understand what has gone wrong with this response so far and what can be done better in the future, but also what went right.
“So, to the residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities: your Congress hears you.
“Every American deserves to feel safe in their home and confident that the water they drink and the air they breathe is safe.
“When something like this happens God forbid, they should also be able to trust that the federal government will be quick, deliberate, transparent, and clear in their response, and that guilty parties will be held responsible.
“I believe the environmental laws on the book are up to the task, so what has gone wrong and what has gone right? That’s what we’re here to talk about today.
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