Worried Customers? Here's How to Discuss Lead Contamination

A national water-quality crisis — such as the recent events in Flint, Michigan — can spark questions from customers and the media. Here’s how several utilities are proactively handling the topic of lead contamination.
Worried Customers? Here's How to Discuss Lead Contamination
Many utility directors say the best response to the Flint water crisis is just to talk openly with customers. An open dialogue builds trust, deters panic and fosters positive feedback. And all that’s required is a commitment to communicate.

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The systemic lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan, water supply has created a national dialogue about infrastructure and lead service pipes. “Could it happen here?” the headlines read. Customers are worried, media outlets are asking questions, and many utilities have found themselves responding to questions about treatment and testing.

Many utility directors say the best response is just to talk openly with customers. An open dialogue builds trust, deters panic and fosters positive feedback. And all that’s required is a commitment to communicate.

“(It’s) beyond important,” says Richard Calbi Jr., director of operations for Ridgewood Water in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “It’s our responsibility to keep the public informed on a regular basis so they don’t lose sight of the steps they should be taking to prevent exposure.”

Ridgewood Water recently sent a letter to homeowners in several municipalities discussing lead and other concerns. That might be perceived as a reaction to Flint, but Calbi said it’s been part of a continuing outreach effort since the utility found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some buildings during routine monitoring in June 2012.

“The document is actually a public notification that is sent to all mail stops in our service area twice a year: June and December,” he says. “We have been circulating copies to all customers by mail since 2012. The intent is to keep people informed about what steps they can take, from simply flushing and using cold water to purchasing filters or bottled water.”

Calbi says Ridgewood Water is also developing more information for its website to help answer questions. Also, utility officials regularly appear at village council meetings, which are televised in the community, and have attended meetings of local health boards and governing bodies of neighboring service areas to make sure the message extends to all users.

Robert Kardasz, utilities director in Stoughton, Wisconsin, which has about 4,900 water customers, says his department hasn’t received any questions or concerns about lead since Flint made the news. He attributed that to a longtime customer-relations campaign, including informational articles and water-quality reports on the utility’s website and appearances at schools and city council meetings.

“We seize the chance whenever we can,” he said. “The city has a local cable channel. I’ll try to go to the council meetings, which are televised twice monthly, and if a question comes up on anything, of course I’m going to elaborate. I think with a community our size — 12,700 people — a lot of people watch local cable, and they remind me of that. You’ve got to work with the customers. I think a lot of times, when you’re proactive, they tend to be satisfied rather than having to wait for that information.”

That’s especially important in communities with older homes, which might have lead service lines. Jeffrey Pippenger, utilities manager in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, says his city has about 1,269 lead service lines in homes from the 1930s and earlier. The community has an active street and utility construction program that spends more than $2 million annually to replace water infrastructure, and it’s constantly sharing water-quality information with customers.

“I have done two interviews with local media sources, but I have not received any calls from customers (since Flint),” he says. “This may change due to our recent stories in the media. Our water treatment includes corrosion control by raising our pH of our treated water, which prevents the leaching of lead and copper from lead service lines. It is important to the City of Eau Claire to let our customers know we are not in the same situation as Flint. Additionally, I explained we have tested our system every three years for lead and copper and have not had any noncompliance issues.”

Water officials in nearby Madison, Wisconsin, have unique experience with proactive informational campaigns. In 2001, the city passed an ordinance that required homeowners to replace their sides of lead service lines. The city reimbursed homeowners up to $1,000 or half the cost for the replacement. The effort took more than a decade and cost Madison Water Utility $15.5 million to replace about 8,000 lead service lines. Before work began, though, officials launched a massive educational effort.

“We had community meetings all over Madison,” says Amy Barrilleaux, public information officer for MWU. “We showed people how to go in their basements, find the service coming into their homes and do a scratch test to see if it was lead. These were homes built before 1930. Before that time, they hadn’t kept any detailed records on what kinds of service was in homes. We reached out to every customer who might have lead service.”

That information initiative continues today, whether it involves questions prompted by Flint or general concerns about water safety.

“The annual water-quality consumer confidence report is never going to reach everybody,” Barrilleaux said. “We need to have the ability to talk with our customers about whatever their concerns are.”

And in the digital age, that demand for information doesn’t rest. Web alerts, consumer hotlines and social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, have become increasingly important tools through which water utilities contact customers.

“It’s great from our perspective that we can be so fast in responding to customers now,” Barrilleaux says. “We can put an early notice out about a main break, and it will be retweeted by news stations. People just want to know what’s going on. The expectation now is that communication is going to be quick. People don’t want to wait till the office opens Monday when something happens Saturday. Social media has really raised customer expectations, but at the same time, it has made things a whole lot easier when there’s some kind of emergency. We can get the information out and tell people what they need to know.”

Ultimately, the Flint situation might be a cautionary tale for utilities about the importance of consumer-utility interaction and the free flow of information.

“Communication, communication, communication,” Calbi says. “Educate the public about the value of the water, how it gets to their tap and the energy that’s put into it from the pumps and the people operating the utility — every day.”


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