Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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

By John D. Sutter, CNN
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT