| Proactive utilities engage media on lead
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Proactive utilities engage media on lead

With media outlets everywhere reporting on the Flint, Mich. lead crisis, many water utilities are proactively engaging local reporters to talk about lead and bring confidence to concerned customers.

“We’ve been working at this problem as a society for many years, and we’ve actually made a great deal of progress,” Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, planning and sustainability director at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, told the Boston Globe in a Feb. 11 story. “But there’s certainly more work to be done, which is why we take this so seriously.”

As the Flint situation hit international headlines in January 2015, MWRD mailed a letter to officials titled “What’s Happening in Flint’s Water System and How is MWRA Different .”  The letter contained explanations of how lead gets into tap water, the percentage of their customers with lead service lines and a link to a map where lines are located, and other water quality information. It even carried a graph that demonstrated dramatic reductions in lead from samples taken since 1992.

Many other utilities have reached out in similar ways, including Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha, which issued a press release underscoring that the utility meets all state and federal drinking water standards. The utility had received inquiries from a few consumers via social media channels, website email and phone calls. Customer service representatives were provided talking points, and an FAQ on lead service lines was posted to the utility website. The Omaha World-Herald carried a Feb. 8 article that explained how the utility manages lead exposure and how customers can protect themselves.

“We issued a news release because we knew customers had probably heard about the Flint story and might have questions about our situation,” said Joel Christensen, M.U.D. vice-president of Water Operations. “We’ve had some questions but no obvious loss of confidence in our water.”

In fact, the Flint situation has opened the door to a new partnership for the utility with the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance. The alliance was formed in 2004 after the city was designated as an EPA Superfund cleanup site due to high levels of lead in children. While the alliance’s mitigation efforts have focused on soil and lead paint, it is now partnering with M.U.D. to test water in homes that may have lead service lines. 

“This has been an opportunity to communicate about the quality of our water and our willingness to take a proactive action,” Christensen said. “The Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance partnership and the Omaha World-Herald article likely would not have happened had it not been for the problems at Flint.”

In a panel interview on National Public Radio, DC Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins helped listeners understand that buried water infrastructure is critical to public health and that it’s in need of renewal.

“The bill has come due to update old pipes and old systems,” Hawkins said. “And unfortunately, our customers are so used to us delivering this water every minute of every day and it's out of sight and out of mind … that it's hard to think and to know what needs to be done. This is, in a bad way, because most water is treated extremely well and is very safe.”

Forgotten in much of the Flint coverage is that some two-thirds of utilities don’t have any lead service lines in their communities. But that doesn’t mean Flint didn’t threaten consumer confidence. El Paso Water Utilities actively pitched a local reporter on a story about lead sampling , the fact that there are no lead service lines in the system, and the steps the utility has taken to ensure high quality water is delivered to customers’ taps.

“The result was a positive piece on the front page with the headline ‘Water utility: El Paso water safe from lead,’ ” said EPWU Communications and Marketing Manager Christina Montoya. “The story was shared on our social media platforms and several others. … EPWU has built up trust with our customers on the subject of water quality over the years, so talking to them about this hot-button issue was no different.”

AWWA Communications Director Greg Kail also stressed that utilities that have established relationships with media in their communities typically fare better in media firestorms. He recalled the advice of the AWWA Public Affairs Council when pharmaceuticals in water was the hot story seven years ago. Where possible, the council said, work with public health officials to assure a consistent message, and be eager to enlist the media as a partner in communicating on the issue.

“The council urged utilities to contact media in advance of the phone ringing,” Kail said. “That gives you a chance to tell your own story, define the issues, and express your willingness to speak openly and honestly. Even if a difficult conversation is going to occur, you’re usually better off initiating it.”

The Flint story, and lead in general, is likely to remain in the headlines for many months to come. Multiple major national outlets have filed Freedom of Information Act requests of utilities, seeking information on records related to lead service lines, sampling protocols, customer communications, and Lead and Copper Rule exceedances. At least one newspaper chain has encouraged all its member publications to ask a series of questions in order to inform a broader piece.

“Whether you have a lead problem or not in your community, the Flint story and water quality in general is being talked about,” Kail said. “Where those conversations go may depend on whether the utility is prepared to engage with their customers.” 

Updates and information on lead in drinking water are available in AWWA’s Lead Resource Community.