Petition Targets West Virginia Agencies Over Chemical Spill

February 10, 2014

Two West Virginia government agencies were accused in a court filing Friday of ignoring steps that could have taken to prevent last month’s chemical spill which tainted the drinking water supply for residents in nine counties.

The emergency petition filed with the state Supreme Court on behalf of two nonprofit groups accused the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection of failing to follow state requirements to protect the public’s health and drinking water supplies.

Named as respondents were DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling and DHHR Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney.

The petition was first reported by The Charleston Gazette. Agency officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, the Gazette said.

The petition said a 2002 DHHR report concluded the Elk River water supply was “highly susceptible to contamination” from several potential threats, including Freedom Industries. Crude MCHM leaked Jan. 9 from the company’s Charleston site into the river and into West Virginia American Water’s nearby intake, spurring a water-use ban for 300,000 people for several days.

The petition accused public health officials of failing to require adequate emergency response and source-water protection plans.

It seeks to have the agencies show why they shouldn’t be forced to take several steps, among them requiring protection plans for the Elk River water supply, monitoring the effects of the spill and making that information public, and implementing a chemical accident prevention program.

“In order to prevent similar disasters in the near future, respondents must be compelled to comply with their statutory duties to protect the lives, health, and livelihoods of West Virginians from chemical exposure,” the petition said.

Lawyers from the public interest law firm Mountain State Justice and activist group Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed the petition on behalf of Charleston’s Covenant House, which serves the needy, and the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Local residents Monique Watkins and Virginia Gardner also are among the petitioners.

Covenant House said it provides housing and other assistance for more than 200 people daily.

“This is a time of crisis,” Covenant House said in a statement. “Our system has failed us. Our water supply was compromised. The public trust breached. This has affected every person in our community, and it has impacted the low-wage worker and homeless populations disproportionately.”

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