Editorial: How safe is our water? Let the public know
In the opening of our continuing series, How Safe Is Our Water, Assistant Managing Editor Jake Griffin describes the alarming results of a water quality test in Libertyville in 2014.
One of the 30 sites sampled came back with lead levels 48 times as high as the federal warning level.
Libertyville residents were duly notified of the test results in a bureaucratic-looking direct mail piece that showed that one of the 30 samples yielded results above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "action level."
To that, a reasonable person might observe: It's one thing to be above the action level; it's quite another to be 48 times as high as the action level.
Michael Womack lives across the street from the house where the actionable water sample was drawn. Do you know how he found out about the results? From the village of Libertyville perhaps? The county health department? The Illinois EPA?
None of the above.
Womack only found out about it when Griffin called out of the blue.
"That's definitely something I would want to know about, and it does give me great concern," Womack said in a reaction that sounded quite normal. "We have the oldest house in town, and I know we have a lead line that comes into our house from the street. If they're getting those kinds of results over there, we may have the same problem, right?"
The problem cited in Libertyville turned out, apparently, not to be overly significant and as far as we know, has been addressed, although even that is unclear.
But an issue that recurs throughout Griffin's exploration of suburban water safety is one of communication.
If you look back at the lead contamination disaster that befell Flint, Michigan, 300 miles to the east of us, the decisions that led to that contamination certainly were all but unfathomable.
But they were compounded by a lack of communication by almost all the players that was, frankly, unconscionable.
While the water safety issue in the suburbs is nowhere near as dire, the systemic pattern of poor communication is similar.
We're not by nature cynical, but the impression we sometimes get is that those in charge of water safety might be more concerned with keeping the public calm than with keeping the public informed.
This is not meant as an indictment.
But it is meant to say that all those involved in this important work need to re-examine their approaches to communication.