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Sen. Domenici: Common Sense Would Indicate Government Liability in New Mexico Wildfires

Aired May 12, 2000 - 1:33 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATER, CNN ANCHOR: Whether or not the park service workers who started the fire should've known better, the U.S. government appears to face some serious liability.

Joining us now to talk about that and other damage control efforts in his home state is the United States senator from New Mexico, Pete Domenici.

Hello, senator, you just heard about the weather facts, you knew about that.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO: Yes.

WATERS: You said yesterday that some mistakes were made. Have your questions in that regard been satisfied?

DOMENICI: No, no, they have not, and I can understand they have to get a very precise group of people to take a look. Those who are very informed on the risks of this kind of control burn. But it seems like kind of common sense to me, with what I've already seen, that there were too many risks to start this fire. Now that's just the layman, who is very concerned, who goes up there all the time to see this great laboratory. And I just think it's pathetic what's happened, and I guess I feel kind of sad and sorry for it. So I'm willing to say it shouldn't happen. And I think probably that's the way it's going to turn out.

But let the government take its investigative action just so long as they don't drag this on. We will be asking the General Accounting Office and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Murkowski chairs that, we'll be asking them very, very soon. We'll start working with them tomorrow, Ask them how can they give us some quick answers and then how can they give us a long-term evaluation. We want to find out why this happened and then we want to do everything we can to avoid this in the future. It's happening other places, it just happens that here it happened right around one of the most valuable investments of the United States government. With a lot of people and a lot of houses now are burned down. The lab has been spared, but this is a very, very bad situation.

WATERS: You were in there yesterday.

DOMENICI: Yes, sir. WATERS: You flew out there immediately, got some time to spend looking it over. We've been told repeatedly these pictures don't really tell the story.

How bad is it, what's it like?

DOMENICI: Well, I'll tell you, for me it was both eerie and surreal. You know, it just didn't seem like I was in the right place and on the other hand, it looked like somebody was fixing to make a movie. And they had fire on one side, and then you'd get through it and there would be smoke all over the road. And then you look off this way and there would be another plume. Now it could hardly be pay -- they could hardly control it because it was going on so many fronts and then the really interesting thing is to see a house burn down.

I mean it was burned to the ground and hou -- cars that were around it, or the metal was just melted. But it wouldn't -- maybe it didn't get the house next to it. Maybe it skipped three houses then it got two more. So it was a very, very -- it's interesting in terms of how all the thermodynamics work there. How did all this happen,

But I want to make sure that everybody in the area and everybody in this country knows that as far as the ambient air, the air that is coming from there, there is absolutely no evidence of radiological problems or any toxidity other than the toxidity that comes from a forest fire. We have all kinds of machines around that look at the air, and there is no safety risk to America or the surrounding areas.

WATERS: That was one of the major questions, the safety surrounding the nuclear plant. The other is the government's liability here. We just heard from the FEMA man saying dollars will be put up for lodging for these folks and for cleanup.

But how far does that go?

DOMENICI: Well, look, I would imagine some of these wonderful people have insurance on their houses, but the truth of the matter is somebody's got to determine whether this was a disaster that was natural in nature, or whether this was a disaster caused by a mistake that somebody working for the United States government made. If it's that, then obviously the government's going to have to pay more than in a usual disaster because they're the cause of it. I'm not sure where that lies now, but my common sense tells meet the United States government, that somebody working for us didn't do their job right.

WATERS: Senator Pete Domenici, thanks so much, happy birthday.

DOMENICI: Thank you.

WATERS: We appreciate you being with us today.

DOMENICI: Thank you very much.

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