Cantwell Secures USGS Nominee’s Commitment to National Landslide Assessment
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Under questioning from U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today, President Obama’s nominee to head the U.S. Geological Survey committed to devote funding to a national assessment of landslide-prone areas.
Dr. Suzette Kimball, now acting director at USGS, said her agency is planning a national assessment, and is committed to developing comprehensive surveys using laser-mapping technology known as LIDAR. Her remarks came in response to Cantwell’s questions about USGS’s landslide efforts during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“I think looking at the national plan is going to be important,” Kimball told Cantwell. “We do have additional funds that we are planning for a national assessment of landslide-prone areas, and ultimately, to look at the kinds of precipitation events that would trigger landslides and debris flows.”
During the hearing, Cantwell also pushed a top Department of Energy nominee to work to improve worker safety at Hanford and to ensure workers have better access to personal protective equipment.
And she received a commitment from President Obama’s nominee to be commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure the federal government gives its “fair share” for the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Enhancement Project.
The March 22 landslide near Oso that killed at least 41 people and destroyed dozens of homes has refocused attention on developing a National Landslide Hazard Mitigation strategy. USGS proposed such as program 10 years ago but it has never been funded. That has left states and local jurisdictions to do their own mapping of landslide-prone areas.
“I think you can realize where I am coming from after the Oso/Darrington mudslide,” Cantwell said. “Not enough is being done. This LIDAR – Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging -- is really essential.”
Aerial scanning with LIDAR is particularly useful in mapping areas at risk for landslides or faults because it allows scientists to peek beneath thick vegetation and more accurately map the topography.
“We are committed to going forward with comprehensive LIDAR surveys,” Kimball said. “If confirmed, I will definitely be working with you and other members of the committee to realize this.”
On April 2, President Obama declared the mudslide a major disaster, which allowed for increased federal aid to authorities in Snohomish County. USGS is involved with investigating what caused the hillside to collapse. Several factors can contribute to landslides, such as long-term erosion, heavy rain, earthquakes, logging, and over-saturation of soils from extreme storms.
Two other Obama administration nominees also testified during Tuesday’s hearing, including Estevan Lopez, nominated to be the next Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, and Dr. Monica Regalbuto, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management.
“This issue of chemical vapor exposures to Hanford workers is unacceptable,” Cantwell told Regalbuto. “In the last two months, 28 people have become sick or been exposed to these vapors. And workers have asked for better access to personal protective equipment.”
Regalbuto committed to work with Cantwell’s office on supporting worker safety.
Cantwell also received a commitment from Lopez to improve federal funding for the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Enhancement Project. “I recognize that funding on the federal side has been insufficient,” he said. “I do commit that we would work with you if confirmed to try to assure that the federal government can contribute its fair share.”
Below is a transcript of Cantwell’s exchange with Kimball, Lopez and Regalbuto.
Senator Cantwell: Dr. Kimball… I wanted to ask you specifically about landslides and a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences that the USGS publish a landslide hazard mitigation strategy. That was something that was recommended but never received funding. So do you think we need to do that plan?
Dr. Suzette Kimball: I know our USGS employees feel very strongly about landslide work. I think we do need to continue. We do have a strategic plan for natural hazards within USGS. I think looking at that national plan is going to be important. We have additional funds that we are planning to use for a national assessment of landslide-prone areas, and ultimately, to look at the kinds of precipitation events that would trigger landslides and debris flow.
Cantwell: I think you can realize where I am coming from after the Oso/Darrington mudslide that not enough is being done. So you are committed to doing a plan and understand that we now have an increased risk? The change in climate is causing rainfall records that people never anticipated, so it’s putting these risks in a higher area. This LIDAR – Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging -- is really essential.
Kimball: Yes, Senator. I recognize that and we are committed to going forward with comprehensive LIDAR surveys. If confirmed, I will definitely be working with you and other members of the committee to realize this.
Senator Cantwell: Thank you, thank you very much. Mr. Lopez, we had a chance to talk about the Yakima Basin project in my office. You obviously get the significance of how everyone in the region is working together -- Native Americans, environmentalist, farmers, county commissioners -- it’s almost as if they are giddy with pride at how well they are working together, which is juxtaposed with a lot of other water situations around the country. Yet the President’s budget doesn’t fully reflect what they are requesting for federal assistance. The state has already put up $137 million. Will you work to make sure we get the federal participation that is needed on this project?
Mr. Estevan Lopez: Thank you for your question, Senator Cantwell. I also want to thank you for the opportunity to visit with you a few days ago. The discussion we had regarding the Yakima Basin integrated plan meeting was demonstrative of the sorts of thing you can do when you get everybody together in collaborative processes and bring everybody along and make sure there is a common understanding of the goals. Quite often, it yields win-win type situations. I commend you and all of the participants in this project. It’s an outstanding example of the value of those sorts of processes. I recognize that funding on the federal side has been insufficient. I do commit that we would work with you if confirmed to try to assure that the federal government can contribute its fair share.
Cantwell: And, Dr. Regalbuto. Thank you for willingness to serve. We’ve certainly worked with many of your predecessors. This issue of chemical vapor exposures to Hanford workers is unacceptable. In the last two months, 28 people have become sick or been exposed to these vapors. And workers have asked for better access to personal protective equipment. What will you do as secretary to increase worker safety at tank farms? And what will you do to make sure workers who suffer radioactive exposure have their medical claims addressed?
Dr. Monica Regalbuto: Thank you for your question, Senator Cantwell. I share your concern regarding the vapor exposure to 28 workers. No worker should be exposed. I understand the Savannah River National Laboratory is conducting an independent study to assess what is the source of those exposures. I myself am a rad worker. So I suit up and put on a respirator at work. I certainly recognize it is a complex job once you are fully suited, and the workers do deserve the best protection equipment that is available and access to their records, because their records are theirs. If confirmed, I do not know the very specifics right now of this situation. But if confirmed, I look forward to fully addressing this issue and working with you and your staff on this issue.
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