Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

It's OK, the water's safe to flush

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 9:04 AM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Noncontaminated tap water is coming back for some West Virginia residents
  • John Sutter: Our collective indifference to the disaster is troubling
  • 300,000 people were without water after a chemical spill
  • Sutter: U.S. needs to debate how to keep chemicals out of drinking water

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Try to imagine New York or California dealing with a situation like this: The tap water's only good for toilets, not drinking, washing, cooking or showering; more than a dozen people have been hospitalized for complaints related to water that's been contaminated with a somewhat mysterious chemical; and residents wait in line for bottled water -- or for ice to melt -- in order to have something to drink.

That's been life since Thursday in West Virginia's capital city, Charleston, where 300,000 people were left without safe water -- again, except for toilet flushing -- after chemicals contaminated the Elk River. Some of the taps have started coming back on; cleanup and testing are underway, according to the news reports on Monday. But the spill, which has been attributed to a leak in a chemical-storage tank not far upriver from the city's water treatment plant, continues to paralyze Charleston.

A Washington Post reporter described living in the city as "a lot like camping."

A resident was blunter: "It's like a zombie apocalypse here."

Where's the national outrage?

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Our collective indifference is troubling.

It's like we think: It's OK, the water's safe to flush.

Or: Whatever, it's just West Virginia.

This would be the story everyone in America's talking about if chemicals used for cleaning coal were spilled into a river in a state with more political clout and media presence. Take New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie's administration is accused of jamming up traffic as payback for a rival politician. The public has been ravenous for that story; meanwhile, West Virginia matters just as much.

At least it does to real people -- people who value safe drinking water.

Sure, I understand why the Christie scandal -- which we're all calling "Bridgegate" these days -- matters. He's a national figure who has (or had) a good shot at being the Republican front-runner for the 2016 presidential race. There's an alleged cover-up, a trough of juicy e-mails, calls for a federal investigation, and real people were inconvenienced.

I'm not arguing the bridge scandal is insignificant.

But it's sad that disasters seem to need brand strategists these days.

"If we called West Virginia 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol leak 'Watergate,' do you think the political press would pay more attention?" asked Ana Marie Cox, a columnist for The Guardian.

The answer, as she implies, is yes.

Jason Linkins wrote for the The Huffington Post that none of the major Sunday morning news shows gave much -- if any -- coverage to the chemical spill.

"Sunday shows to West Virginia: Drop Dead!" his headline blared.

They were too obsessed with Christie, which, as he points out, has plenty of time to play out before the presidential elections, two years from now.

This stuff goes way beyond the media and its handling of events. Major newspapers and television networks, including CNN, sent reporters to West Virginia to cover the story. Information is out there. It's not that no attention has been paid. But West Virginia is so maligned in our national consciousness that some people probably expect environmental contamination like this to happen there. The country should be in the middle of a national debate about how to ensure chemicals are kept out of our drinking water. It's one of the most basic of government services.

Some people in West Virginia are trying to advance that conversation.

Take Angela Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. She told The New York Times that, "We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests." She and others also are asking the tough questions: Why was a chemical storage tank allowed to be on a river that's used for drinking water?

And why wasn't the tank inspected since 1991?

Then there's Ken Ward Jr., from The Charleston Gazette, who reported that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board had recommended three years ago that West Virginia "create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents." It didn't, of course.

It should now.

Let's join Rosser and Ward in their search for answers.

That's needed to ensure a spill like this never happens again.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT