Citizens, science and writers

Collecting water for analysis in Flint, Mich.

LeeAnne Walters had three words of advice when a science writer asked how to tell stories that will capture the audience’s attention: “Find a mom.”

Walters had struggled to get the attention of anyone in the media as she confronted Michigan state and federal officials with evidence of lead contamination in her family’s tap water over the summer of 2015. Eventually, though, she became a leading voice in the story of widespread water contamination in the city of Flint.

Walters was one of three panelists invited to discuss lessons from the Flint water crisis during the New Horizons in Science briefing organized by CASW during ScienceWriters2016 in San Antonio, Texas. The other panelists, reporter Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan and Virginia Tech researcher Siddhartha Roy, applauded Walters for her tenacity, perseverance and meticulousness. Roy is one of the researchers at Virginia Tech who provided, among other things, the lab analysis that demonstrated the toxicity of Flint water samples.

The title of their session was “Science + Science Writing: The next Flint crisis (and why there will be one).” Held on Sunday, Oct. 30, it provided an interesting yin to the yang of Mónica Ramirez-Andreotta’s session the next day, “Cultivating citizen science to reduce environmental risks.”

Ramirez-Andreotta is a researcher at the University of Arizona who teamed up with residents in a community near a Superfund site. The project, Gardenroots, grew out of a public meeting she attended when the Iron King Mine Humboldt Smelter Superfund site was added to the EPA’s priority list. Citizens there asked whether they could safely eat vegetables grown in nearby gardens.

Unlike in Flint, where the government made a decision to change the city’s water source, then ignored or denied citizen complaints about the water, the Arizona project launched within a recognized site of environmental degradation. And because Ramirez-Andreotta built a project around citizen concerns, the residents learned early on how to take samples, submit them and interpret the results.

Along the way, Ramirez-Andreotta made deliberate choices to engage and empower residents. They chose which vegetables to monitor, for example, and when it came time to decide what to eat, Ramirez-Andreotta presented a set of risk ranges so the residents could evaluate how risk-adverse they were and make informed decisions based on multiple factors.

In the process, Ramirez-Andreotta says some of the participants also discovered their city water was not meeting certain state standards. That group worked together to force the state of Arizona to enforce its drinking water standards. The issues with the city water were not directly related to the tailings from the Iron King Mine, Ramirez-Andreotta said, but participation in Gardenroots and the data the project collected inspired what turned into a four-year effort to bring city water into compliance.

The reason these two projects struck me as halves of a single whole is that they demonstrate both the end-results of reporting on citizens, science and the intersection of government, policy, communities and media, and the types of collaborations that can precipitate more thorough and proactive explorations of potential problems.

In Flint, Walters, Roy and others did eventually distribute hundreds of water sample kits, which were then analyzed in academic labs, after which the academics helped the residents to understand the results and present those to officials. But in Flint the scientific work was reactive, while the Arizona project was, in a sense, proactive. (I say “in a sense” because obviously the contamination from the mine was long-standing and the residents likely had already been eating their garden vegetables before the EPA meeting at which they raised the question.)

From a science writer’s perspective, these two sessions also provide an important dichotomy. With the exception of Michigan Radio, which has been widely heralded for its early and ongoing work on the Flint water story, most local media stuck to a simple structure of presenting residents’ complaints alongside officials’ reassurances, without digging into the details. In fact, Guyette, of the ACLU, said he went to work investigating the state and federal officials because nobody else was doing it.

Ramirez-Andreotta, on the other hand, has a project brimming with stories one could tell—like why the leafy greens and brassicas may be riskier to eat than tomatoes and peppers. She, too, had a couple of residents (including, yes, a mom) who spoke out and agitated and got attention to problems the research uncovered. Reporters who connect with projects like this one in the early stages could be well positioned to continue reporting when something unexpected transpires—such as the out-of-compliance city water system.

One of the aims of New Horizons is to present early research and provoke writers to get interested in a topic before it hits the mainstream. Gardenroots is a great topic: Ramirez-Andreotta has expanded it to several more locations, but has solid data from one community to show what the project can accomplish. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear much more about it moving forward, and I’ll be looking for an opportunity to weave it into my own food and agriculture reporting.

Finally, I take great inspiration from a meeting that features legendary physicists and brilliant biologists alongside “a mom.”

2016 CASW New Horizons Travel Fellow Amy Mayer (@AgAmyinAmes) is the Harvest Public Media reporter at Iowa Public Radio. She also has written for a variety of print and on-line publications.