On January 9, 2014, residents across Charleston, West Virginia, awoke to an unusual licorice smell in the air and a similar taste in the public drinking water. That evening residents were informed the tap water in tens of thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and dozens of schools and hospitals—the water made available to as many as 300,000 citizens in a nine-county region—had been contaminated with a chemical used for cleaning crushed coal.
I’m Afraid of that Water tells a particular set of stories about that chemical spill and its aftermath, an unfolding water crisis that would lead to months, even years, of fear and distrust. It is both oral history and collaborative ethnography, jointly conceptualized, researched, and written by people—more than fifty in all—across various positions in academia and local communities. I’m Afraid of That Water foregrounds the ongoing concerns of West Virginians (and people in comparable situations in places like Flint, Michigan) confronted by the problem of contamination, where thresholds for official safety may be crossed, but a genuine return to normality is elusive.
The Weatherford Awards are given by Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association annually. Weatherford Awards honor books that “best illuminate the challenges, personalities, and unique qualities of the Appalachian South.” The three categories recognized are fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The conferring of this annual award has come to be recognized as a major Appalachian event. The awards commemorate the life and achievements of W.D. Weatherford, Sr. Weatherford was a pioneer and leading figure for many years in Appalachia. The monetary award will be given to the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. According to comments from the judges:
“This book sets a meaningful example from which community-engaged Appalachian studies scholars will draw much inspiration.”
“Documentation was exceptional in capturing how people felt about the water crisis. A rich collection of short venues of people’s experiences and how they were affected. The book merged academic perspectives with community-based voices in an Appalachian exchange between folks with similar experiences in a crisis and Appalachian shared living.”
The award money was donated entirely to the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
Melissa Checker, coeditor of Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice [from the book jacket]: “A unique, moving, and highly readable account of community reactions to a technological disaster. Authors weave together powerful and highly personal narratives that reveal the tensions of coping with ongoing environmental uncertainty. With a novel, collaborative approach, they make meaningful connections between the experiences of local residents and the systems and institutions that produce and perpetuate disasters and their aftermaths. Readers of all stripes will find it as enlightening as it is poignant.”
Jennifer Embree in the Electronic Green Journal. Embree finds that “In their ambitious new book entitled I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis, editors Luke Eric Lassiter, Brian A. Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell expertly weave together a diverse collection of research, stories, interviews, and oral histories of West Virginians’ experiences during and after the 2014 water crisis that affected over 300,000 people and nine counties near Charleston, West Virginia. With over fifty different contributors, the book’s uniquely collaborative documentation of this industrial disaster brings together diverse perspectives across seemingly disparate populations, such as academics and community activists, young working professionals and retirees, and city dwellers and rural residents, to deliver a highly collective and deeply personal account of this devastating crisis.” Read the full review here.
Megan E. Hall in the Appalachian Journal states that “Although a common complain about books documenting environmental crisis is that there is no ‘rallying cry’ at the end, no instructions for what readers can actually do about the issue, I’m Afraid of That Water effectively demonstrates strategies for documenting crises. This book is a testament to the power of community action and collaboration between people from all backgrounds. After finishing the book, readers walk away with the feeling that they can do something in the face of environmental exploitation, whether they are academics, or retired engineers, or BBQ restaurateurs.” See full review in the Appalachian Journal [will require subscription].
Peter Little, author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks [from the book jacket]: “A great example of a multiauthored and intersubjective ethnography of toxic suffering, this book is a model for future disaster ethnographies.”
Nina McCoy in the Journal of Appalachian Studies states that “In a perfect world, I’m Afraid of That Water would be required reading for a mandatory, semester-long class for all new and existing federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) workers, in which they participate in discussions concerning who their true clients are and what is the ultimate goal of their agency. In the real world, this book is an important work full of compelling stories that capture the human experience of an all-too-common current event: a man-made environmental disaster that threatens the immediate life-sustaining basic need for water.” Read the full review here [may require subscription].
Cassie Rosita Patterson and Bethani Turley in the Journal of American Folklore “find this text to be highly instructive, particularly as an experiment in activist, multivocal, collaborative ethnography.” Read the full review here [may require subscription].
Joanne Rappaport in the American Anthropologist. Rappaport finds herself “inspired by the way the academic contributions to this volume were placed in dialogue with chapters by local citizens … [in] a expert melding of academic and community objectives and methodologies. Few works on collaborative ethnography provide readers with this sort of a window into how collaboration happens.” Read the full review here.
Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth in the Journal of the Anthropology of North America. Waugh-Quasebarth finds that “As a work that demonstrates the real connections between educators, research collaborators, and students, the book addresses a need in collaborative literature to use ethnographic writing to instantiate how collaborative relationships are formed and sustained. [It] contains a diverse ethnographic tool kit of methods, theoretical frameworks, and research outputs … useful not only to researchers and educators of political–economic and environmental dimensions of disaster, but also to those who seek to create sustainable and equitable partnerships in collaboration.” Read the full review here [may require subscription].
Media & Other Coverage
Journal of the Anthropology of North America: Home/Field “Author Engagements” Interview with Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth
Marshall University Press Release: Marshall professors’ book earns Weatherford Award for best books about Appalachia
Mountain State Sierran (Sierra Club): New Book Tells Stories of 2014 Water Crisis. See page 6.
Marshall University Graduate Humanities Newsletter: Everyone has a story
Charleston Gazette-Daily Mail: Seen through the eyes of folklorists and educators, Appalachia is a region still defined by its people
Charleston Gazette-Daily Mail: Forthcoming book documents the 2014 Elk River chemical spill
Table of Contents
Introduction – Elizabeth Campbell, Brian A. Hoey, and Luke Eric Lassiter
Part I. “I’m Afraid of That Water”: A West Virginia Disaster and Water Crisis
1. The Elk River Spill: On Water and Trust – Luke Eric Lassiter
2. Exploring the (Human) Nature of Disaster – Brian A. Hoey
3. Toward a Collaborative Ethnography – Luke Eric Lassiter
4. Chemical Spill Encountered – Trish Hatfield
Part II. On Place: To Stay or Not to Stay
5. Blues BBQ – Jay Thomas
6. Citizen Response: On Leaving and Staying – Cat Pleska and Joshua Mills
7. In and Out of Appalachia – Emily Mayes
Interlude. Exploring the (Human) Nature of Disaster—Impact and Responses – Brian A. Hoey
Part III. On Making and Remaking Community
8. Activism and Community – Jim Hatfield
9. WVWaterHistory.com and Producing Digital Resources on a Water Crisis – Gabe Schwarzman
10. What Does a Water Crisis Sound Like? – Laura Harbert Allen
11. Can We Trust the Water System Now? Some Updates – Jim Hatfield
Epilogue – Luke Eric Lassiter
Afterword – Angie Rosser
Contributing authors (alphabetical):
Laura Harbert Allen is an Appalachian media scholar and producer whose research interests include power, media, and knowledge production in Appalachia. She is also interested in how gender, race, and class play out in the media. Her production credits include the MacArthur Foundation, Inside Appalachia, and Making Contact.
Elizabeth Campbell taught at Marshall University from 2012 to 2018. She is currently chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University. Her research explores the constitutive nature of collaborative research and writing and especially how it works—through shared agency, shared commitment, and shared humanity—to make and remake those who engage it. Her most recent collaboratively written books include Reimagining Contested Communities and Doing Ethnography Today.
Brian A. Hoey is a professor of anthropology and associate dean of the Honors College at Marshall University. His research encompasses themes of personhood and place, economic change and identity, and environmental health. His most recent book is Opting for Elsewhere from Vanderbilt University Press.
Jim Hatfield has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He had a twenty-five-year career with Union Carbide as a research scientist. He became an advocate for safe water systems following the 2014 Charleston water crisis.
Trish Hatfield is program assistant for the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program and a board member of Step By Step, Inc. She recently retired her facilitating business so she could focus her attention on writing creative nonfiction and participating in collaborative ethnographic projects.
Luke Eric Lassiter is a professor of humanities and anthropology and director of the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program. He is the author of several books on anthropology and ethnography, including Invitation to Anthropology, The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, and, with Elizabeth Campbell, Doing Ethnography Today.
Emily Mayes graduated from Marshall University in 2016 with an MA in humanities and a graduate certificate in Appalachian studies. She is currently working as a high school English teacher in North Carolina.
Joshua Mills graduated from Marshall University in 2016 with an MA in humanities and a graduate certificate in Appalachian studies. He is currently working as an archaeologist and survey technician for an engineering firm in Maryland.
Cat Pleska’s memoir, Riding on Comets, was a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ memoir category. She edited the 2019 anthology Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. She is working on an essay collection titled The I’s Have It: Traveling Ireland and Iceland.
Angie Rosser is the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, bringing a background of working in West Virginia on social justice issues in the nonprofit sector. She holds a BA in anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MA in organizational communication from West Virginia University.
Gabe Schwartzman is pursuing a PhD in geography at the University of Minnesota and has produced several research projects about the Appalachian coal fields, including interactive mapping project WVWaterHistory.com and oral histories of the Appalachian South Folklife Center and Blair, West Virginia, both housed at the University of Kentucky.
Jay Thomas, 2017 Marshall University MA in humanities graduate, is a restaurateur and lover of literature. He and his wife, Honor, are relocating to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Their daughter, Daisy, is an actress living in Brooklyn, New York, and their son, Jake, is a student at Shepherd University.