WCIJ full response to Wisconsin DNR’s comments on lead-in-water testing story

On Dec. 7, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism received an email from DNR spokesman Jim Dick demanding corrections to our story “Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidance in wake of Flint crisis.”

Here is a copy of the email, as well as our point-by-point response to the demand for corrections. (We have added italics below to designate direct quotes from our story.)

We stand by our story and have not identified anything that needs correcting.

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Email from DNR:

We are writing you to request an immediate correction of the story put online by the Center Friday evening (12/2/16) with the headline-Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidance in wake of Flint crisis.

The story incorrectly characterizes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to inform municipal drinking water systems of changed guidance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contains inaccurate information, and undermines public confidence in Wisconsin’s efforts to ensure a safe public water supply as defined by state and federal standards.

The story posted Friday evening requires a series of immediate corrections:  http://wisconsinwatch.org/2016/12/wisconsin-dnr-fails-to-update-lead-testing-guidance-in-wake-of-flint-crisis/.  At this point, the story has been widely picked up by Gannett and others in the state. We will be sending those media outlets a copy of this response so they are aware they have printed a story that needs to be corrected for their readership.

Our specific concerns follow:

The headline: Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidance in wake of Flint crisis

  • This is incorrect. Following the Flint crisis, EPA sent a notice to states recommending that they remove pre-stagnation flushing from their lead and copper sampling instructions.  DNR made a decision years ago that it would not recommend pre-stagnation flushing in its instructions.  Therefore, DNR did not need to update its sampling instructions that are sent to public water systems in January of each year.  As recommended by EPA, DNR posted a copy of the lead and copper sampling instructions to its website in May 2016. http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/drinkingwater/lead.html. These are the same instructions that are sent annually to public water systems along with their sampling requirements.

WCIJ response:

Evidence that the DNR was planning to but had not yet updated its sampling guidance is here in DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno’s Nov. 18 email: “Our current sampling instructions indicate the water must be stagnant for 6 hours prior to sampling, but the instructions do not address whether or not the sample tap should be flushed prior to the stagnation period. This is one item we will be clarifying with new instructions that will be posted online. Pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”

In its response to the EPA memo, the DNR told the EPA that its sampling protocol “does not allow” pre-stagnation flushing. Yet, by its own admission above, DNR’s sampling protocol does not mention let alone ban pre-stagnation flushing, which the EPA had warned in its Feb. 29 memo was a practice among some water managers. In fact, we found the state’s largest water utility, the Milwaukee Water Works, had a policy of advising its customers to do pre-stagnation flushing until the EPA memo came out.

Also, when Mr. Dick indicates the DNR “did not need to update its sampling instructions,” that appears to contradict statements from Ms. Sereno, who told reporter Cara Lombardo in a Nov. 18 email: “We are in the process of updating sampling instructions for public water systems given new guidance from U.S. EPA.” In fact, the department, in a letter dated Dec. 2 — the same day our story was published — informed water managers of the updated guidance from EPA. The letter comes nine months after the EPA issued its guidance, as our first paragraph and headline indicate.

Email from DNR:

Subhead: The Department of Natural Resources has not alerted public water systems to stop flushing before testing, which can understate the level of lead in drinking water.

  • This is inaccurate and misleading. In addition to the information noted above, DNR has conducted extensive outreach on this issue. Once we received EPA’s recommendation, we started working with the Wisconsin Rural Water Association (WRWA), American Waterworks Association, WI Section (WI-AWWA) and other industry groups to share this information since March 2016.
  • Following notification of changed guidance from EPA on Feb. 29, on March 1, 2016, WI-AWWA sent an e-notice to all members regarding the EPA memo and specific sampling guidance. We presented the EPA sampling recommendations at several statewide meetings with public water systems in attendance: March 30th Annual WRWA conference; May 4th Water Supply Regulatory Affairs Seminar; September 15th Annual WI-AWWA Conference. WRWA is a partner with the DNR providing continued education to public water system operators (PWSO) on a monthly basis, and they were informed to share these recommendations with PWSO as early as March 14, 2016.

WCIJ response:

We asked Ms. Sereno how the word about the new sampling guidance was spread, if not by notification of individual water managers. She provided us with this on Nov. 18: “This information was shared with industry groups and presented at meetings in Wisconsin this year. We are in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.”

In a subsequent email on Dec. 2, Ms. Sereno provided details on how the information was shared with industry groups: “Following receipt of the memo in late February, this information was shared with industry groups and presented at industry meetings in Wisconsin beginning in March 2016. On 3/7/16 we had a Water Industry meeting in which this was discussed; on 3/14/16 DNR sent the attached to Wisconsin Rural Water Association (WRWA); on 3/30/16 we presented this at WRWA annual conference.”

At no point did DNR indicate there was additional outreach or additional meetings.

Email from DNR:

Lead paragraph: Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state Department of Natural Resources has not yet passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin.

  • Not true. We did make that information available. See above answer. (By the way, the EPA “recommended”-it didn’t “warn” which has a different alarming connotation. The EPA document reads, “Therefore, the EPA recommends that sampling instructions not contain a pre-stagnation flushing step”. Even though we had not recommended pre-stagnation flush before Feb. 29 we followed the EPA’s suggestion and did not include such instructions in the website version.

WCIJ response:

See responses above. On Nov. 18, Ms. Sereno said in an email that the agency was “in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos.” The agency dated that letter Dec. 2, which was nine months after the EPA’s Feb. 29 memo and the same day our story was published.

Email from DNR:

Second paragraph: The EPA issued a memo in late February as the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan was exploding into public view. The memo, intended to clear up confusion over testing procedures, declared that flushing water systems before sampling must be avoided because it can conceal high levels of lead in drinking water.

  • The copy mischaracterizes EPA’s memo, which actually states: “EPA recommends that sampling instructions not contain a pre-stagnation flushing step”, as opposed to “must be avoided” as stated in this article. While DNR agrees with EPA’s recommendation, the statement in the article as citied above is inaccurate because this part of the sampling is a recommendation, as opposed to a legal requirement.

WCIJ response:

Our story never stated or implied this was a legal requirement.

Email from DNR:

Subsequent paragraphs:
Water managers in Shawano and at Riverside Elementary School near Wausau say they were not aware of the change and have continued to use flushing when testing for lead.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who helped expose the Flint crisis, said that updating the testing procedures is “essential for public health protection.” Any amount of lead can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and behavior problems, according to the EPA. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

“As we saw in Flint, the old protocols effectively ‘hid’ lead in water problems,” Edwards said. “Given what we now know, data collected using the outdated protocols cannot be trusted.”

The memo also instructed EPA administrators to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said the agency was notified of the guidance and she confirmed that “pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”

Sereno insisted the agency had responded appropriately. DNR presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March, she said.

  • Context: This was in the month of March alone; there were more meetings later in the year as pointed out above.

WCIJ response:

See above. DNR never alerted us to additional meetings or outreach efforts beyond those we reported based on Ms. Sereno’s emails.

Email from DNR:

Sereno added that the agency “is in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.” The agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, expects to send the letters next week, she said.

Additional graphs:
A search of the DNR drinking water database Friday showed nearly 6,270 lead compliance sample results from 948 water systems have been reported to the agency since Feb. 29, when the EPA guidance was issued. It was not immediately known how many used the now-discredited procedure of pre-stagnation flushing, in which a water system is flushed for some period of time, water sits unused for six hours, and then samples are collected.

  • Pre-stagnation flush was not included in the DNR’s annual letter of sampling instructions to public water systems in January of 2016. If any system chose to use that technique, it was not at DNR’s instruction or guidance. To repeat, DNR has not included pre-stagnation flushing in its guidance sampling instructions but did undertake an outreach effort to remind public water systems of the EPA’s February recommendation.

WCIJ response:

We never reported that the DNR instructed water systems to use pre-stagnation flushing. Our story said the agency did not warn water systems against using this step, which as our story documented, continues to be used by some in Wisconsin.

Email from DNR:

Sampling procedures listed on the DNR’s website indicate the water must be stagnant for six hours but do not address whether or not the tap should be flushed prior to sampling. Sereno said new instructions will be posted online to clarify this.

In July, EPA sent a letter reminding states to post updated protocols to their websites, saying the agency would follow up with each state “to ensure that these protocols and procedures are clearly understood and are being properly implemented to address lead and copper issues at individual drinking water systems.” The EPA did not respond to a question about whether any other states had failed to notify water managers of the updated protocols.

  • As noted earlier, and as recommended by the EPA, DNR posted sampling instructions that did not include a pre-stagnation flush to its website in May 2016. http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/drinkingwater/lead.html. Again, keeping in mind that WIDNR had not included pre-stagnation flush guidance in the first place prior to the EPA’s February memo.

WCIJ response:

As noted above, we never reported that the DNR instructed water systems to use pre-stagnation flushing. Our story said the agency did not warn water systems against using this step, which as our story documented, continues to be used by some in Wisconsin.

Email from DNR:

While some municipalities, such as the Green Bay Water Utility and the Milwaukee Water Works, were aware of the EPA memo and updated their testing procedures, others continued using outdated methods that included a flushing step — making it possible dangerous levels of lead could go unnoticed.

  • This is inaccurate. The public water systems serving the majority of the population in the state were not required to sample in 2016. Rather, they will sample for lead and copper June 1, 2017, as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Consequently, they have not conducted scheduled testing since EPA came out with its recommendation so they couldn’t have continued using outdated methods during scheduled sampling when they haven’t even tested yet.
  • In January of each year, annual sampling instructions are mailed to every public water system in the state. In the DNR’s 2017 mailing, the lead and copper sampling instructions will, as a reminder, reflect that pre-stagnation flushing is not recommended per EPA. However, while the DNR agrees with the EPA recommendation and has not recommended such a procedure itself, it is not in violation of any code or rule to conduct pre-stagnation flushing.
  • Municipal water systems that tested in 2016 are on a more frequent lead and copper testing schedule than the majority of public water systems, most likely because of a lead and copper action level exceedance. We are in constant communication with those systems that have more frequent monitoring requirements, and verbally make them aware of the current recommendations and requirements from EPA.

WCIJ response:

It is not clear what correction DNR is requesting. There does not appear to be a dispute that some systems tested in 2016. We found more than 6,270 lead compliance water samples had been taken by water utilities and reported to DNR since that memo came out. If the agency was in “constant communication” and verbally notified water systems testing in 2016, that message was not received by the water managers we spoke to who tested in 2016. Managers of three water systems all said they were using pre-stagnation flushing in 2016 and were never notified by DNR to cease the practice. The DNR provided no evidence that it had passed the EPA guidance not to use pre-stagnation flushing directly to the 11,470 water managers in the state — until this week. (See letter above.)

Email from DNR:

Shawano included pre-stagnation flushing in the procedures used for this year’s testing, which was completed over the summer. Patrick Bergner, water manager for the city of nearly 10,000 between Green Bay and Wausau, said although he works closely with a DNR liaison, he was not aware of any EPA guidance against flushing.

“I’d be happy to be informed of any changes in the procedure,” Bergner said. One of Shawano’s 21 compliance samples had a level of lead nearly three times the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion; several more neared the limit.

  • Clarification: Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the water utility must take action in regard to the entire water utility if more than 10 percent of the samples are above the action level. Shawano is currently at 9.7 ppb and would not require any additional action on the part of the utility. The water utility however, must notify homeowners of the results of the lead and copper testing in their homes when an exceedance occurs, which would be the case at the home where this sample was collected.

WCIJ response:

We did not report or suggest that Shawano should have notified its customers of these findings or taken any other specific action in response to the samples. We merely reported the findings as a way to illustrate that some of the systems using pre-stagnation flushing do, in fact, have lead problems.

Email from DNR:

DNR public water supply specialist Tony Knipfer acknowledged the need for clarification when flushing is appropriate. It is typically recommended as a way for consumers to reduce exposure to lead in their own homes, for example, but should not be done before testing.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion or conflicting information out on the flushing,” he said. “But from a regulatory aspect and a health and safety aspect, we’re looking for representative samples of what’s likely to be consumed.”

  • There may be some confusion nationally and some utilities may not fully understand the requirements or recommendations, but in Wisconsin we have made it clear to DNR staff, public water systems and industry associations that pre-stagnation flushing is not a recommended practice.

WCIJ response:

That message has not been received by some of your water managers, as we found through our reporting. And there was indeed confusion in Wisconsin. The state’s largest water utility, Milwaukee Water Works, said its policy was to instruct homeowners to do pre-stagnation flushing until the EPA memo came out, as our story correctly notes. When we said there was confusion within the state, we were directly quoting one of DNR’s own water supply specialists.

Email from DNR:

Milwaukee Water Works issued a statement in June saying it immediately adopted the instructions not to pre-flush. Those new instructions will be put to use next year when the utility tests 50 homes and buildings for compliance with EPA regulations.

“Prior to February of 2016, MWW did instruct residents to flush their home plumbing prior to the required six-hour stagnation period, before collecting samples for regulatory compliance purposes,” according to the memo from Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis to Mayor Tom Barrett.

  • See above.

“The last testing cycle (for Milwaukee) was the summer of 2014. That cycle did include the pre-stagnation flushing instruction,” Lewis wrote. “The next cycle in the summer of 2017 will not.”

Other procedures that can mask the true level of lead in drinking water include removing or cleaning faucet filters called aerators that can collect lead particles; using narrow-necked bottles that result in a slower flow of water; and sampling in cooler months when lead concentrations are lower. The EPA also urged that those procedures should end.

“While we cannot undo the past harm done from failing to detect water lead risks,” Edwards said, “there should be zero tolerance for future needless harm that arises from a false sense of security created by bad data.”

Please confirm to us that you have received this correspondence and are taking action to resolve the numerous factual errors. Many thanks for your attention to this matter.

WCIJ response:

We have received this correspondence and have not identified anything that needs correcting.


WCIJ sent the above correspondence to the DNR on Dec. 8. On Dec. 9 we received the following email reply from spokesman Jim Dick:

The Center for Investigative Journalism’s decision not to correct this story is unfortunate. It perpetuates the mischaracterization of the DNR’s actions regarding an EPA recommendation.

With this headline-Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidance in wake of Flint crisis- the article painted a picture of an agency derelict in its duty to warn people about a pending health crisis like Flint. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It also unfairly indicts the DNR people working on these programs who take these issues seriously.

Even your own reporting contradicts your headline when you say the DNR “insisted the agency had responded appropriately” pointing out that we “presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March”. As we pointed out in our email there were additional contacts made as well.

The DNR did not fail to update lead testing guidance. The pre-stagnation flushing was never included in Wisconsin’s lead testing guidance in the first place. However, because the EPA included the recommendation (not a warning or rule change) with other items in the February memo to all states, we did make and continue to make an effort to remind systems of the recommendation from EPA even though we never recommended that pre-stagnation flushing technique in our own annual guidance letters.

Not correcting or clarifying is disappointing since one would think a journalism organization would be interested in getting things right.

WCIJ response:

Thank you for the follow-up email late Friday.

We have carefully considered your requests for corrections and our conclusion remains unchanged: The original report was fair and accurate.

We remain willing, as always, to further discuss any questions or concerns.

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