The Environmental Working Group is making news once again with a new report detailing the existence of radium in the drinking water of tens of thousands of systems across the country. As one can expect, reporting on the EWG's findings is oversimplified, repeating its headline that much of America's drinking water is "radioactive".
This example - this morning's story from CBS This Morning, which appears to be an initial exclusive - shows how easily the findings, tied to the list of other contaminants that are reported in CCRs, can be relayed in a way that would understandably cause customer concern. Sure, the story eventually works in a couple of lines that serve as caveats that take a tiny bit of steam out of the idea the sky is falling. Radium levels in the city they highlighted - Brandon, South Dakota - do not exceed federal guidelines.
However, they quickly state in the next line, "but many health officials say there is no "safe" level of the carcinogen." After watching the story, the average customer is left with the overwhelming takeaway is that the mere existence of radium in drinking water can harm you, that water utilities cannot handle the situation and are making cost-benefit analyses about treatment, and that your customers might have to take matters into your own hands.
It is clear that EWG gave the story to CBS This Morning as a bit of an exclusive. More stories spinning out of the report will follow, especially on the local levels, given the ability for local news organizations to simply pop in a zip code, pull up their utility, and make a phone call for comment.
This is just the latest example of the need for utilities to consistently communicate about water quality beyond CCRs. Specific statements about events like EWG's reports and Flint will always have to be reactively developed. However, if the press and the public have been transparently informed about water quality and how hard the utility works to protect the public health, then the utility will be in a better position to retain crucial customer confidence.
Key stakeholders, like elected officials who are likely to pick up the phone, will feel better about supporting the utility during times like these, and that can make all of the difference when addressing ratepayer concerns. And when you stand before them to present your budgets or to answer questions about utility issues, they are more likely to stand with you instead using you to score political points.