Chairman Stupak and Ranking Member Walden, I would like to thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing. I am sorry I am not able to appear in person, but appreciate your offer to accept my written statement and include it in the hearing record.
Your Subcommittee has a long history of conducting tough, probing, bipartisan investigations into the way our laws are administered and the way our tax dollars are spent. I congratulate you for your efforts and urge you to keep up the good work.
I believe that hearings like this one today are an essential part of the legislative process. Congress’s job isn’t just to write laws. It’s also our job to understand whether the laws are being followed, and how the laws are affecting the people we represent.
I proudly represent the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, including the employees of the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute, West Virginia, where the accident you are investigating occurred on August 28, 2008. West Virginians are the absolute best, most productive workforce in the world -- and my commitment to protecting them and providing the safest possible workplace runs very deep.
I also represent West Virginia first responders and emergency officials. These are the brave men and women who are the front line of our homeland security system. You are going to hear testimony from some of these individuals today. They are the people who quickly responded to the August 28 accident. I can’t say how proud I am to represent these remarkable people - their commitment to public service and their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their neighbors should always be applauded.
We are here to get to the truth, and the people who work in and live around the Bayer plant deserve nothing less than the truth. They deserve a thorough investigation that will help them understand how the accident happened and the health risks to which they were exposed. They also deserve to know whether Bayer personnel should have been more forthcoming with information as local officials attempted to respond to the accident.
The only way to prevent future accidents is to study and learn from the ones that have unfortunately already occurred. By conducting this investigation, your Committee is providing a valuable service to the people of West Virginia, to federal and state emergency officials, and to the entire chemical industry.
Of course, the information your investigation is uncovering may make some of these groups uncomfortable. But that’s something we are all just going to have to live with, because protecting our workers and communities from chemical facility accidents is something we have to get right.
All West Virginians have the right to know what happened at the Bayer plant on August 28, 2008, and I am extremely frustrated and troubled that many people in the community currently feel that they have not gotten the whole story.
One of our most basic principles in this country is that citizens be informed of their government’s actions and that is what we must do.
Back in 1990, this very Committee – the House Energy & Commerce Committee - authorized the creation of the Chemical Safety & Hazardous Investigation Board (CSB) to ensure that the public would know how accidents like this one happened, and to push the private sector and government to adopt safer practices.
I also recognize that some of the information involved in this investigation is considered “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) and is therefore subject to disclosure limitations established by the Department of Homeland Security.
As a former chairman and a current member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I can assure you I have a deep appreciation for the importance of protecting information that could cause damage to our national security.
But I also want to note that a basic principle of our national security law is that classification cannot be used for any other purpose than our nation’s defense. A government agency cannot use security classifications to conceal misconduct, prevent embarrassment, or delay the release of information that should be released to the public.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the United States Coast Guard, the federal agency that has the classification authority in this matter, asking them to carefully weigh these two important interests. I have attached a copy of this letter to my testimony.
In this letter, I urged the Coast Guard not to allow the SSI classification protocols to be improperly used as a shield to prevent the public disclosure of information about the Bayer accident.
While I think the Coast Guard has now resolved this issue in a satisfactory way, it should serve as a reminder to all of us who care about public accountability that we will have to keep a close eye on private sector or government officials who might seek to misuse the homeland security classification protocols to conceal their conduct from public scrutiny.
After this hearing today, and the public hearing the CSB will hold this Thursday in West Virginia, it is my hope that the citizens of the Kanawha Valley will have a much better understanding of what happened at the Bayer Plant on August 28,, 2008. By the end of this week, they should have all of the facts they need to make up their own minds about how this accident happened, and to hold people accountable for what was not done or what should have been done better.
It is also my hope that these public hearings will help restore West Virginians’ confidence that their government is putting their interests above all others.
Please see the attached letter from Chairman Rockefeller to Admiral Allen.