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
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT