CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new legal action accuses two state government agencies of "collective dereliction of their duties" in not taking steps that could have prevented the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical leak that contaminated drinking-water supplies for 300,000 West Virginians.
The emergency petition, filed with the West Virginia Supreme Court, says the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection ignored state laws and rules that required them to protect drinking-water supplies.
The 36-page petition also says state officials ignored warnings that such an incident was possible and did not adequately respond to public concerns after the leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries' tank farm.
"Despite several clear warnings that West Virginia residents in the Kanawha Valley were at imminent risk of toxic exposure, respondents refused to take the actions necessary to protect the public health and the environment as required by statutes and regulations," says the petition, filed Friday.
Lawyers Jennifer Wagner and Bren Pomponio, of the public-interest law firm Mountain State Justice, and Michael Becher and Joe Lovett, from the group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed the petition.
The petitioners are two nonprofit groups, Covenant House and the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, that serve needy and in-crisis members of the community, and two area residents, Monique Watkins and Virginia Gardner.
In a statement, Covenant House, said, "This is a time of crisis. 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," the statement said.
"Every day, more than 200 people count on Covenant House to help find housing, to take a shower, do their laundry, secure food and clothing, or some other emergency subsidence," the statement said. "It is a significant hardship for the low-wage worker to pay for bottled water to drink, to bathe their children in, and to cook."
Named as respondents in the petition were DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling and Dr. Letitia Tierney, the commissioner for DHHR's Bureau for Public Health.
Officials from the agencies did not respond to requests for comment.
Among the specific allegations in the petition:
• Public health officials failed to require adequate emergency response and source-water protection plans for the Elk River water supply.
• The public health bureau did not maintain and update a comprehensive hazardous-materials list that includes materials frequently used in West Virginia and appropriate emergency-response procedures.