Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism stands by story on lead testing protocols after DNR request for corrections

Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state DNR had not passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin. Our story examined that delay.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requested corrections to a story we distributed Dec. 2 reporting that it had taken nine months for the agency to notify water managers in Wisconsin about updated sampling protocols issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Those protocols, aimed at more accurately measuring lead in drinking water, were issued in February in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

First, we stand by our story. The same day our story was published, the DNR drafted a letter to the state’s water managers, alerting them to the EPA guidance and telling them to “incorporate updated sampling instructions into future sampling events.” The letter provided a link to a Feb. 29 memo — the same one the Center reported had not previously been shared directly with those responsible for lead testing.

Next, a bit of background to explain how we learned about this issue.

A few weeks ago, we were working on a story about lead in drinking water when we discovered that a school which runs its own water system was flushing the school’s pipes and then allowing the water to sit for six hours before taking lead samples.

This caught our attention because the practice, called pre-stagnation flushing, was one of the steps that the EPA specifically warned against in the memo sent to EPA water division directors back on Feb. 29. The memo instructed the directors to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. A spokeswoman at the DNR, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, confirmed the agency was notified of the guidance.  

We were aware that the EPA had warned against this practice because of previous reporting for our Failure at the Faucet series, which found that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are at risk of drinking tainted tap water. Among the most serious threats is lead, a neurotoxin especially dangerous to young children and pregnant women that comes into contact with drinking water through plumbing.

In the demand for corrections, DNR spokesman Jim Dick insisted that the agency did not need to update its sampling protocol because it does not recommend pre-stagnation flushing. Just two weeks earlier, however, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno had assured us that, “We are in the process of updating sampling instructions for public water systems given new guidance from U.S. EPA.”

And while the DNR has assured the EPA that its testing protocol “does not allow pre-stagnation flushing,” a copy of that protocol provided by DNR does not mention let alone ban the practice.

As we continued reporting the story, we discovered that some water systems beyond that one elementary school were still using this step and, as of Dec. 2, had not been notified by the DNR to stop doing it. One served a small elementary school and another served the roughly 10,000 residents of Shawano in central Wisconsin. All three said they were following previous practices in flushing before testing.

In the demand for corrections, Dick said the DNR has made clear to staff, public water systems and industry associations that pre-stagnation flushing is not recommended. Yet we found even the state’s largest system, the Milwaukee Water Works, had a policy of pre-stagnation flushing until the EPA memo came out earlier this year. Milwaukee says it has changed its policy and will no longer recommend this step in its next round of testing in 2017.

Our own reporting and one of DNR’s own water supply specialists quoted in our story confirm there is confusion in Wisconsin on this point.

Dick contended that the agency’s efforts — primarily presenting the information at water industry meetings — was sufficient.

What we discovered, though, was the DNR’s message was not getting out to some of the 11,470 water system operators in Wisconsin responsible for lead sampling.

During that nine-month delay, we found, there were 6,274 lead compliance samples taken by water systems in Wisconsin and reported to the DNR. The samples involved 948 water systems.

In an email to the Center, Dick said, “Not correcting or clarifying is disappointing since one would think a journalism organization would be interested in getting things right.”

In our view, however, we did get things right. Our story provided valuable, accurate information about an issue of great public importance — identifying and getting the lead out of Wisconsin’s drinking water.

And a final point: The DNR’s emails to news organizations that published the Center’s report inaccurately referred to “UW-Madison’s Center for Investigative Journalism.” There is no such entity. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) nonpartisan news organization, and the university exercises no editorial control over it.

Comments are closed.