Senator Collins Questions Secretary Chao on Boeing 737-MAX and Calls Attention to the Needs of Rural America

Senator Collins also calls for Hazmat Training in Rural Areas in Wake of Farmington Explosion

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Susan Collins, the Chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, held a hearing to review the fiscal year 2021 budget request for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). 


During the hearing, Senator Collins questioned DOT Secretary Elaine Chao about the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of the Boeing 737-MAX and the progress it has made toward recertifying the aircraft.  She raised her concerns with numerous safety issues the FAA has identified since the 737-MAX was grounded last year, such as debris found in the fuel tanks.  In light of these problems, Senator Collins asked Secretary Chao to provide an update on the timeline of the FAA’s review.


“The FAA is a fact-based organization, and that’s how it makes its decision,” said Secretary Chao.  “I have told the FAA and made it very, very clear—and they agree. They believe this as well—there is no timetable. Our number one priority is to ensure the safety of this aircraft before it is ever ungrounded.” 


In a follow-up question, Senator Collins asked, “[S]hould you find that there were mistakes that should not have been made, or other more serious problems with personnel, are you and the FAA administrator prepared to take action?”


“The short answer is yes,” Secretary Chao replied.  “Let me also say that the FAA office that is in charge of the certification is devastated…I do believe that accountability is due and if indeed there is evidence that there is fault we will not hesitate to take action.”


Senator Collins made clear that she believed “the vast majority of employees of the FAA do an extraordinary job and are very dedicated to their mission.”


Farmington Explosion


During the hearing, Senator Collins also spoke about the September 2019 explosion in Farmington that killed a firefighter and severely injured several others.


“We had a terrible propane explosion in Farmington, Maine.  It killed Fire Captain Michael Bell and severely injured six others.  The building manager was so heroic in evacuating the building once he began to smell the propane gas and as a result he was severely burned and critically injured,” said Senator Collins.  “I visited this site…it was truly a devastating incident for this small town.”


The Maine State Fire Marshall’s investigation found that during construction of this building, a propane line was damaged, causing the explosion.  Senator Collins cited a study by the International Association of Fire Chiefs that found that 80 percent of rural fire departments that respond to hazardous materials incidents do not have any formal hazmat training.  Senator Collins said that reauthorizing the Emergency Response Grants program and working with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to reach rural areas would be helpful to prevent another tragedy like the one in Farmington from occurring in the future, and she asked if Secretary Chao would commit to supporting those efforts.


“There are many resources available from PHMSA available already…obviously we still need to do more,” answered Secretary Chao.  “I’m very happy to work with you on some of your ideas on what more we can do.”


Improving Safety on Rural Roads


Senator Collins also thanked Secretary Chao for her emphasis on keeping rural roads safe.  She noted that although 19 percent of the nation’s population lives in rural areas, 46 percent of the nation’s highway fatalities occur on rural roads.  In addition, 80 percent of America’s poor-condition bridges are in rural areas.  Nearly half of all truck vehicle-miles-traveled occur on rural roads.


“I want to commend you for the focus that you have placed on the disproportionately high rate of crash fatalities in rural America.  Prior to your taking over the Department, there really wasn’t the kind of focus and analysis on this problem,” said Senator Collins.  “I looked at the data from the State of Maine between the years of 2013 and 2017, and on average there’s one fatal crash every 57 hours.  We’re a large, rural state, and we have a lot of roads and bridges that you’ve been very helpful in helping us repair and replace, but there’s a lot of work left to be done.”


Senator Collins asked Secretary Chao to comment on how the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) program—an initiative DOT established to focus on the disparities in fatal crashes—can help rural states reduce the number of deadly accidents.


“A lot of rural communities don’t have the resources with which to seek and find out about sources of funding, so ROUTES was a recognition of the safety statistics that you just mentioned—that rural America cannot be overlooked, that the majority of bridges in need of attention are in rural America, and that the highest fatality rates actually are on rural roads,” Secretary Chao responded.  “That’s also not to mention the fact that rural roads are not only used by rural residents; they’re used by freight, by train shipment, by urbanites—urban dwellers.  So we have a very compelling case for paying attention to rural roads.  This ROUTES council was set up with a focus on how to outreach to rural America to let them know about the pots of money.  We have 69 different funding programs at the Department of Transportation.”


Senator Collins applauded the program, commenting “That really is terrific because smaller communities do not have grant writers.  They do not have the resources.  Our offices try to help them by doing grant searches, but it’s still a real challenge for smaller communities.”