By Ayesha Rascoe and Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Frustrated West Virginians demanded information about the safety of their drinking water in the wake of a chemical spill in January that left 300,000 of them without safe tap water for more than a week, even as U.S. lawmakers pressed for action to prevent similar accidents in the future.
West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant asked lawmakers at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to support a 10-year study into the effects of the January 9 spill into the Elk River near Charleston, the state capital.
Residents around Charleston were left without drinking water for more than a week after a Freedom Industries tank leaked coal-processing chemicals into the river.
The hearing was called to examine the safety of U.S. water supplies after the spill raised national concerns.
The state wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to supply all the information it can about the safety of West Virginia's water, Tennant said.
The chemical spill unveiled weak areas in U.S. regulations that must be addressed, lawmakers on the environmental panel said. "Our laws are just not strong enough," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland.
West Virginia authorities lifted the ban on the use of tap water on January 18, but advised pregnant women to continue using alternative water sources.
West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the environmental committee chairman, all Democrats, have introduced legislation aimed at preventing similar spills.
The bill, the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, would require state inspections of aboveground chemical storage facilities and the industry's development of state-approved emergency response plans.
It would allow states to recoup emergency response costs and to ensure drinking water systems have the tools and information to respond to spills and other emergencies.
Boxer said she believes the bill would offer the quickest route to improving the safety of chemical storage facilities and she hopes the committee will vote on the law soon.
Senator David Vitter, the top Republican on the panel, expressed support for the effort to prevent future spills but said he was working with the bill's sponsors to address concerns he has about the legislation as it is now written.
Lack of information about the possible impacts of the chemicals involved in the Charleston spill have left residents on edge, state officials said.
Lawmakers also demanded that Freedom Industries, the maker of the specialty chemicals involved in the spill, be held financially accountable for the leak.
"They're cowards," Boxer said. "Running away and leaving the people is an outrage. It is a violation of basic human decency."
Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the spill in January. The company has apologized for the accident.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Ros Krasny, Phil Berlowitz and Bernard Orr)