Building Trust in the Truth

March 21, 2023

By now, I am certain you are aware of the Norfolk Southern East Palestine Train Derailment. A train carrying a number of hazardous chemicals derailed Feb. 3 in Eastern Ohio, creating panic in the community and a media frenzy.

The event signaled concern for the water quality of local waterways and, by extension, local drinking water supply. While the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency asserted the water in local waterways was safe, trust in the institution was lacking. Chemicals were burned on site and ash was found in the yards of properties within the derailment area.

More to the point, the contamination concern extended beyond the localized community as chemicals made their way into local streams and waterways that lead to the Ohio River. The Ohio River serves as a drinking water source for a number of water treatment plants, as the river borders six states. Real-time monitoring was used to alert agencies as the chemical plume reached their intakes to ensure they could prepare.

Questions of authorities continued into early March in public meetings with officials at EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Community members showed health symptoms related to controlled release of the chemicals despite the assertion from the state and U.S. EPA that air and water are safe.

The challenges faced by these agencies, and the scientists and laboratories monitoring and testing the water and air, mirror what the drinking water sector will likely experience following the release of EPA’s per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals. With health advisory levels below what modern science is able to reliably detect, the MCL figures may present a similar communications challenge for a complicated scientific matter.

On page 16, author Scott Pritchett from Thermo Fisher Scientific shares detailed information on the challenges in analyzing for PFAS as well as the technologies that are advancing preparation, separation, detection and data analysis of the family of “forever chemicals.”

“As the number of identifiable and unknown PFAS continue to increase in number, the need for effective methods of detecting and characterizing these compounds becomes ever more important,” he wrote.

Having a firm grasp on the technologies and how they work can be a critical asset in building your credibility and trust when you communicate with your customers about these contaminants. If the health advisory levels are any indication of the media attention that is to follow, then utilities should start preparing now.

Truth and trust are the most important currency of our time, and there is little trust even in institutions that historically have provided the truth. Without trust, the truth is harder to believe, even with science and evidence to back it up. Utilities looking at the impending PFAS regulations should note the value that communication plays in this equation.

Earn the trust for the truths of your system now. When the questions come flooding in later, you’ll have credibility to take hits to your trust while still holding up that truth with the data and science to show for it.

About the Author

Bob Crossen

Bob Crossen is the editorial director for WaterWorld Magazine, Wastewater Digest, Stormwater Solutions, and Water Quality Products, which compose the Endeavor Business Media Water Group. Crossen graduated from Illinois State University in Dec. 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in German and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. He has worked in business-to-business journalism covering the drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and point-of-use/point-of-entry markets since April or 2016. Crossen can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7980.