Social media and TV news suggest link between his utility's water and brain cancer. Here's what he did.
August 31, 2017

By Ann Espinola

Clay Duffie has run the water utility in Mount Pleasant, S.C. for nearly three decades, quietly delivering safe water to Charleston’s second-largest suburb. But Duffie’s responsibilities expanded wildly this summer after local moms chatted on Facebook about a perceived uptick of area children with brain cancer. Their posts drew the attention of a local television station that aired their concerns and added the speculation: “Is it the water?” 

“It was just an open-ended question that started connecting us with brain cancer,” Duffie told Connections.

Social media fueled community fears for weeks as dozens of Mount Pleasant residents posted about the quality of their water, a possible link between it and a host of cancers and autoimmune diseases, and how to order home water quality test kits. 

Meanwhile, the utility staff responded to every email and phone call it received and assured customers their water was regularly tested for contaminants. When the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control reported in late June that there was no cancer cluster in Mount Pleasant, Duffie thought the matter was closed -- at least until the following week when another mom posted:

“Has anyone else ordered the at-home water quality testing kits? If so, what were your results? I just tested mine and I’m pretty sure it’s positive for pesticides.”

Within 72 hours, the utility found itself at the center of a media firestorm that included coverage by a CNN spinoff -- the HLN network -- and public scrutiny from environmental advocate Erin Brockovich. Near-daily accounts of pesticide-in-water concerns appeared in the local press and in television news reports.

Duffie’s moment in the media glare could have severely undermined the utility’s credibility if not for key measures he and his team used to reassure customers they care about them, take their concerns seriously, and were doing everything possible to research their questions and provide relevant data.  

Mount Pleasant Waterworks managed its communications crisis through a coordinated outreach plan that included daily updates on their website, MPW’s social media pages, blast emails to customers, two community meetings, interviews with multiple news outlets, and daily conference calls with their wholesale supplier and state health officials. 

Now, as the furor has subsided – and all third-party lab testing indicates the utility does not have a pesticide problem -- Duffie and his staff are taking time for reflection.

“This blindsided us,” said Dionna Ebeling, MPW’s community engagement and communications director. “Social media is an uncontrolled platform where anyone can say anything. In our community, a small number of people created hysterics. Their first action wasn’t to come to their utility with questions, or even to post to our Facebook page. It was to go to the moms’ Facebook pages and post comments.”

Duffie said the experience taught him that journalistic standards have changed.

“It used to be that reporters would research the facts,” Duffie said. “Now all they have to do is flip on social media and if it looks like something is getting traction, they take that chat and run with it. 

“I call it the stress, the press, and the BS.”

Mount Pleasant Waterworks is not alone. More and more, utilities are facing questions about their water quality in the wake of the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint. The critiquing continued last month when the Environmental Working Group released its latest drinking water contaminant database, an update of its 2009 release.


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Across the United States, newspapers carried stories in early August about the EWG report and the contaminant exceedances in their own communities.

In Raleigh, N.C., The News & Observer published a story under the headline, “Is your drinking water polluted? Plug in your zip code and find out.” The City of Raleigh water system had nine contaminants that exceeded EWG's self-described health guidelines in the 2015 data.

Soon after, Ed Buchan, environmental coordinator for Raleigh’s Department of Public Utilities, received a call from an editorial writer at The News & Observer trying to figure out what stance the paper would take on the findings. Buchan said he was well prepared for the call since he’d received advanced notice of the report’s release from AWWA and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He’d also reviewed and developed his talking points ahead of time.

Buchan explained to the writer that the biggest problem with the database is that so-called health guidelines violated by many utilities are speculative and based on the lowest recommendations available. For instance, the EWG benchmark for trihalomethanes is 0.8 parts per billion based on draft of a California health hazard assessment that was never released. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is 100 times that number, which is also the standard California adopted.

Buchan also said municipal water systems typically go beyond EPA standards. He pointed out that Raleigh is a member of the Partnership for Safe Water, an alliance of water organizations, including AWWA, which sets goals more stringent than current regulations.

Buchan conveyed the utility’s pride in its work. “I told him our mission is to keep 570,000 people alive every day and we take that seriously. We are compliance machines.”

Buchan hung up and waited to find out if his talking points had hit their mark. 

The editorial published a few days later under the headline: “The unfiltered truth: Raleigh’s water is fine.”


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In mid-June, Duffie and staff at MPW noticed the brain cancer threads on Facebook, but their interest was simply as members of the community since the water questions had not yet emerged. 

One of the first moms to post said her 15-year-old son had survived a rare, but operable, brain tumor. She had become friends with the mother of an 8-year-old Mount Pleasant boy who had died in 2014, shortly before her son was diagnosed.

As the social media talk intensified, other Mount Pleasant residents began to post their own cancer diagnoses. On June 26, the mom of the teenage brain cancer survivor told a local television station that she knew of 11 people diagnosed with brain tumors and that most were within three subdivisions in north Mount Pleasant. “As of last night, I knew of five cases over the past three years,” the woman said. “Now I know of 11.”

The report did not verify the 11 cases, but it did include the “Is it the water?” conjecture. Mount Pleasant’s mayor told the station said she had contacted MPW and was told all of the utility’s test results for contaminants are open to the public and there was no cause for alarm. Ebeling said no one from the station called the utility directly for input on the story.

Two days later, the Department of Health and Environmental Control reported there was no cancer cluster in Mount Pleasant. A DHEC spokesman told the Charleston Post & Courier a true cancer cluster must meet scientific criteria, including a three-fold increase in the number of cases of a particular kind of cancer over the number expected.

In Charleston County, 18 children were diagnosed with cancer in 2014, the most recent year state data is available, according to the Post & Courier story. That compares with 15 cases in 1996 and 23 in 2004, when the number of childhood cancer cases peaked. DHEC said it takes two years to compile cancer statistics and that the 2015 figures would be added later this year. 

The department’s announcement that there is no cancer cluster did not quell community fears. The TV speculation about a water connection had already aired and social media chatter had shifted to the possibility of pesticides in the water.

Between July 3 and 5, the utility was contacted by five customers who said they had tested their water and it showed atrazine and simazine, both herbicides. DHEC told Duffie they had received similar calls on Thursday, July 6.

The phone calls prompted MPW to issue its first press release on July 7.

“We are aware of the concerns being posted on social media following the use of home water sampling kits,” Duffie said in a statement.  “Our top priority is to provide clean, safe drinking water for all customers. We care about the quality of our water and are working with South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) to address the concerns that have recently arisen.”

The release also noted that home water quality test strips do not produce certified laboratory data considered legitimate and accurate by South Carolina DHEC or the EPA.

“Analyzing the results of the degree of darkness of the lines shown on the home test strips is difficult,” the release noted. “We are coordinating with SCDHEC and are organizing efforts to sample and test for the chemicals of concern by our customers. SDHEC will be using a certified laboratory, proper sampling techniques, and official chain of custody procedures.”

Finally, the utility noted that lead, pesticides, and other potential contaminants are monitored by SCDHEC and MPW.  “To date, none of these chemicals have been detected at concentrations of concern. Historical data is available to the public for review.”

The release did not assuage worries.

“On Saturday, things blew up more,” Duffie said. “Social media was attacking us and the press was calling us.” 

The social media posts from July 7 continued the water-and-cancer drumbeat.

“We just had a dog die of a very aggressive cancer, and would like to have our water tested,” one woman wrote on a health information Facebook page. “For those of you who have had water tested, what’s the best way to go about this?” 

Another wrote, “Look at Chromium 6, there has been info about high levels all across the US and water treatment centers do not filter it out…..”

Utility staff responded to all customer phone calls, emails, and questions posted on the utility’s website, but made a conscious decision not to post on outside social media pages. 

“We knew it would be a mistake for us to reply to every negative comment and off-the-cuff remark that came up,” Ebeling said. “We chose not to engage in social media conversation on pages other than MPW’s because the comments and information posted on those pages were unfounded and uncontrollable.”

Instead, the utility told its story in nearly every other way.


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On Sunday morning, July 9, Duffie held a press conference at the utility’s Rifle Range Road offices to give  an overview of the Mount Pleasant system and address the social media frenzy. 

“We knew it was important to take control of the messages going out,” Ebeling said, “so that people who had been drinking our water for years and had never had concerns weren’t all of a sudden only left with information from the television media and social media.”

Duffie explained that Mount Pleasant gets 7.24 mgd from the Middendorf aquifer and that it buys 6 mgd from Charleston Water System, which draws from two surface water sources. He said his utility uses reverse osmosis to treat the aquifer water, which is 2,000 feet deep and “protected from any kind of surface water and man-made contaminants.”

He said Mount Pleasant Waterworks tests its water every three years for pesticides due to its consistent non-detection in its groundwater sources, per EPA rules. Charleston Water System tests every year, Duffie said, because its source is river water, which could be more vulnerable to pesticides.

MPW’s three-year testing intervals became a bone of contention for some residents, who wanted more frequent monitoring. Duffie reiterated he was confident there were no pesticides in the aquifer water, but agreed to test it again.

Soon, Duffie’s entire days became focused on managing the community crisis. Throughout its six-week duration, Duffie says he didn’t lose sleep, “but I did wake up thinking about it. I did a lot of thinking in the shower.”

The day after the presser, Duffie called a community meeting at the utility. The 90-minute session included a question and answer period and input from Duffie, Ebeling, and Allan Clum, MPW’s operations manager. Managers from Charleston Water System also spoke -- Chief Executive Officer Ken Hill, Chief Operating Officer Andy Fairey, and Communications Manager Mike Saia.

The execs gave a PowerPoint presentation that listed three agenda items: Introductions, Presentation, and "Listen to your concerns, answer what questions we can today, and provide a plan for the next step."

In other words, Duffie said, “We wanted to see our customers’ faces, and let them see ours.”

The heads of both systems told the audience this was the first time they’d encountered contamination fears erupting from social media. They said it had been at least a decade since pesticides had been detected in their water, but promised to conduct additional tests to be analyzed at third-party labs.

Clum reiterated that home test kits are unreliable.

Parents told the managers they were concerned about water quality at the schools. Duffie said the utility would work with the Charleston County School District to establish sampling points at every school and monitor them monthly.

“We also agreed to flush the system at each school to ensure after the summer break they had fresh water to their meter,” Duffie said.

Still, some attendees had their minds made up, Fairey said. “They were convinced we were lying, and they expressed that all over social media.”

Hill said he understood the dynamic perfectly. “This was a function of the fallout from Flint. They had seen this movie before.”

Aside from utility staff and reporters, 24 people attended the meeting.

“We had 24 out of 85,000 people in Mount Pleasant,” said Duffie. “This was not a big issue to the masses of people. It was a big issue to the media and a relatively small group on social media. Most people weren’t saying, ‘We don’t trust ‘em.’ Most were saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Duffie knew some residents were still skeptical, but were withholding judgement until seeing results from the out-of-state lab – Eurofins Eaton Analytical in South Bend, Ind. Several at the afternoon meeting on July 10 thanked Duffie for listening, and he left with a feeling of optimism.

That night, Erin Brockovich entered the picture. 

Brockovich is an environmental activist who uncovered hexavalent chromium in the drinking water in Hinkley, Calif. in the mid-1990s. Her story was immortalized in an eponymous Oscar-winning movie starring Julie Roberts. As for the controversy in Mount Pleasant, Brockovich said on her Facebook page that there were more unanswered questions about MPW and Charleston’s water quality than answers. 

“That complicated things when Erin became involved,” Duffie said. “It took things to a whole new level.”


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The morning of July 11, Duffie activated MPW’s incident command team, which is patterned after the National Incident Management System, a comprehensive approach to handling hazards and crises at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines.

Duffie said he didn’t activate the team because Brockovich had weighed in on the controversy, but rather to implement a coordinated strategy for handling the growing number of questions from the community and urgent tasks required to address them.

The team assembles roughly once a year -- almost always related to a weather crisis, such as a hurricane or flood -- but never in his 28 years as general manager had Duffie activated the team for a communications crisis.

The eight members included Duffie, Ebeling, and Clum, as well as Nicole Bates, customer services manager; Brian Head, technical services manager;  Mel Bennett , emergency manager; Ross Wattay, field services manager; and David Niesee, engineering manager.

Every morning at 10 o’clock, the team had a conference call with managers from Charleston Water System and DHEC. The calls lasted up to three hours, included nearly 20 participants, and occurred for two weeks.

“It was important we had a coordinated effort between the three agencies.,” Duffie said. “We discussed different action items and leveraging resources.”

 They also had two staff meetings for MPW’s 136 employees.

“They are our first responders,” Ebeling said. “We wanted to make sure they understood how to get answers and where to send customers who had questions.”

 
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At the end of every day, Ebeling, sent out a public update about the utility’s sampling progress. The updates were posted on the utility’s website, Facebook, and Twitter pages, and distributed in 28,000 customer emails, as well as through Next Door, TV, the Post & Courier, and the area’s weekly newspaper, The Moultrie News. The Town of Mount Pleasant was also pushing out updates from the utility through the municipality’s Notify Me module. 

In each update, Ebeling reiterated that the utility was communicating and responding directly to customer questions and needs.

“Customers are invited to visit our Operations Center where we have an information table that houses water quality data and reports,” Ebeling wrote. “Our doors are open and we are here for all our customers.”

The first update, on July 13, listed eight bulleted items and reported that the utility had sampled for pesticides two days earlier at multiple customer homes, including those in the north Mount Pleasant subdivisions. DHEC was sampling both MPW and Charleston Water System’s sources for pesticides, and MPW was also independently sampling for hundreds of pesticides throughout its distribution system.

The update recapped the July 10 community meeting and noted parent concerns about schools and day care centers. “We heard this loud and clear,” the update said, adding that these sites would be part of that week’s sampling.

All water samples would be sent to a third party certified lab, the update said. DHEC would provide its testing results to MPW. MPW’s independent testing would be delivered from the third-party lab directly to MPW. Results would be publicly available upon receipt, probably the week of July 17.

And so it went, day after day, update after update.

On Friday, July 21, four weeks after television and social media first buzzed about brain cancer and water, the results were in: no pesticides or herbicides were found in Mount Pleasant Waterworks or Charleston Water Systems’ samples. 

DHEC had also tested eight water samples for 19 contaminants it typically screens. They had all come back negative the previous day.

Instead of simply testing for the 19 contaminants that are part of the utility’s regular testing cycle, Charleston Water System and MPW had tested for 228 contaminants.

“We did a full suite,” Duffie said. “We wanted to be sure we left no stone unturned, so we tested for all the traditional, most common herbicides and pesticides.”

Duffie scheduled a public meeting for the following Monday night to discuss the results and field any additional questions.
 

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If Duffie thought he’d ride into the meeting in a blaze of pesticide-free glory, he was mistaken.

During the meeting, MPW managers, along with officials from Charleston Water System, explained the test results and reiterated they do everything possible to ensure their water contains no pesticides or herbicides. Then they opened it up for questions – and that’s when they ended up addressing concerns about an entirely different set of compounds.

A man in the audience stood up and said he’d had his water tested and it had come back positive for the chemical GenX, an unregulated contaminant. He held up a one-page lab report.

GenX, a fluorochemical used to make microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, Teflon, and Gore-Tex, has recently made news after it was found in the Cape Fear River, which is the source of drinking water for thousands of eastern North Carolina residents. 

Duffie and the other managers weren’t caught completely off guard. The man had previously gone to local television stations, which had publicized his report, but he had not communicated directly with MPW or Charleston Water System. The public meeting was the first time Duffie and the other managers saw the GenX lab report.

The managers promised to take the matter seriously, but said they needed to see the full report, not just the one-page summary.

Clum said MPW tests for emerging, unregulated contaminants, but that researchers still have much to learn about the chemicals. Duffie said he would try to have a response on the GenX question by that Friday, and that unregulated contaminants would be discussed the next morning at the utility’s daily meeting.

“It will be at the top of our list,” Duffie said.

The man in the audience later provided the full report from GEL Laboratories to MPW. The utility also sampled three points in its distribution system for GenX and other compounds and concluded there was no detection of GenX.

The utility issued a press release that Friday saying that the GEl Labs result was invalid and that results concluded there was no detection of GenX.

After that announcement, some residents contacted the utility and asked for more details regarding the GenX lab test. On Aug. 2, the utility posted another update saying it had met with GEL Laboratories and learned that its GenX result was an estimated value, meaning it was lower than what the instrument could precisely measure. Essentially, it was a non-detect.

To date, that is MPW’s last public statement on the entire matter.

The utility, however, continued to respond directly to customers who still had lingering questions, which trickled off by the middle of August.


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In the tumult’s aftermath, Duffie decided to settle a score.  

He contacted the television new outlet that had originally publicized the “Is it the water?” conjecture and asked station hierarchy to meet him and Ebeling at the utility. The station’s general manager and news director obliged.

“I said to them, ‘Number One, you reported 11 cases of cancer. Can you document that? When we queried the moms and asked for addresses to plot the locations, we could only find six or seven.’ The news director couldn’t say she had documentation, Duffie said.

“I said, ‘You just take the moms’ word for it that there are 11? How can you put that out there without researching it?’”

Duffie then turned to his biggest sore spot. 

“You started a story that we have a sick community and it’s related to the water,” Duffie said. “You created doubt about the quality of the water in this community.”

Duffie said the station manager didn’t say much, and that the news director said she had been on vacation and didn’t know many of the facts. They did tell Duffie that television provides a valuable public service.

Before the media firestorm, Duffie said he’d had a good relationship with the print media, possibly because print reporters tend to stay longer in the same market than those in television. He said his team had previously worked with the Post & Courier to develop in-depth, detail-oriented stories on water issues in the community.

Duffie thought the Post & Courier’s accounts of the cancer-and-pesticide debate were more balanced than those on television.

“I called the editor a couple of times during these past few weeks and said, ‘You all have been doing a good job,’ and I thanked him,” Duffie said. “I think our prior good relationship may have contributed to more fair coverage.”

Duffie doesn’t know how, or if,  the meeting with the TV managers will impact the station’s reporting of future stories involving MPW.

“The media always gets the last word,” Duffie said. “They may come after me later and I may regret it. But I was honest with them.”

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On Aug. 16, Duffie and his upper-level management conducted a post mortem.

They compiled a list of nearly two dozen action items that included educating residents on proper pesticide use and source water protection, providing water quality data on their website, and establishing better working relationships with media outlets. They also plan to join the Partnership for Safe Water.

They said they could have done a better job of sharing with other utilities across the United States the story unfolding in Mount Pleasant. “We had a lot of eyes on us and this could have been a real learning tool, but we were so hyper-focused on our own situation,” Ebeling said. “We could have emailed and pushed information out to other utilities.”

Many of the staff were on a learning curve regarding pesticide testing, perfluorinated compounds, unregulated contaminants, and the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. Duffie said the good news is they had done extensive sampling before the crisis -- as required by the UCMR -- and found few if any traces of contaminants. All had been publicly disclosed in Consumer Confidence Reports.

Duffie said utilities aren’t required to report non-detects in CCRs, but we “will be expanding our reporting to include compounds that are not detected, as well as those that are.”

The what-went-well list included taking methodical actions in their communications, developing a good sampling plan, their staff rehearsal for the second public meeting, and “We heard our customers and responded!” to name just a few.

The staff noted they received more than 100 favorable emails from customers during and after the crisis.

“Good job for deciding to take this matter seriously,” read one. 

“I’m extremely impressed with how MPW is handling this situation and keeping the public informed,” read another. “I have full confidence in your professionalism and the safety of Mt. Pleasant’s water.”

Ebeling said this week she was surprised the cancer-and-water speculation “was able to blow up so big on social media.”

“It’s so disheartening,” she said. “We are the water professionals and have a good reputation in our community. Going forward, I hope people will look to us and not social media and people who aren’t experts. Obviously, water quality is our top concern and we’re not going to turn a shoulder to anyone’s concern.”

Duffie believes his utility’s actions have given his customers peace of mind.

“We proved our water is safe to drink and we communicated that effectively to our customers,” he said.

For now, Duffie said he is relishing the relative quiet.

“We have taste and odor complaints here and there, but those are normal,” Duffie said. “Everything is back to routine.”

Do you have a comment or story idea for Connections? Contact Ann Espinola at aespinola@awwa.org or at 303-734-3454.














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