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Cantwell Secures USGS Nominee's Commitment to National Landslide Assessment

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Location: Washington, DC

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."


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