Every editor in the United States today should be poring over the database that the New York Times assembled — and put online — to accompany its horrifying story on the disastrous state of our public water supplies.
Good as the Times story is, the paper’s decision to go open source with its data is what really makes this stand out. Searchable and state and by zip code, you can look up water facilities and their inspection records in recent years. If I were an editor, I’d want to make sure I got to the bottom of every one of those inspection reports before a citizen journalist could beat me to it.
In the Times story, by Charles Duhigg, we learn about the family of Jennifer Hall-Massey. She, her husband and their two boys live near Charleston, W. Va., where coal companies have so polluted the water supply that people’s teeth are wearing away and simple exposure causes painful skin rashes. Hall-Massey blames a number of deaths and illnesses on the water supply as well.
Water is one of the great untold stories in environmental journalism. I spent a good part of the 1980s covering the Woburn toxic-waste case, made famous in Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action” and a subsequent movie.
Unfortunately, the families whose children suffered from leukemia and other health problems were not able to prove their case, and ended up reaching an unsatisfying settlement with one of the suspected polluters, W.R. Grace.
Because of Woburn and Love Canal, water was a big story in the late 1970s and ’80s. It’s time for it to take its rightful place again. The Times’ package should be just the beginning. Fortunately, it has provided the tools necessary for every news organization to find out what’s happening locally.