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The Dig: Investigating the Safety of the Water You Drink

Today, The Dig dives into water. Pun totally intended. I've received a lot of questions about applying investigative reporting techniques to figuring out whether your water is safe - the stuff in your taps, the stuff in your rivers, the stuff at the beach. Flint, Michigan, has made us all want to be water sleuths.

 

Fortunately, this is one of those topics that investigative journalists routinely tackle. And tackle is the right word, because unfortunately, it turns out to be a pretty difficult job. (One experienced reporter described wrestling with a water data set as battling the "monster" - giving a nerdy journalistic task a cool, Beowulfish feel.)

 

The difficulty is partly due to the complexity of the topic. Water is not simple. And there's this: most drinking water in the U.S. is safe. But let's be honest. Local, state and federal governments do not make it easy to access water safety information. Moreover, the data they possess is often outdated and inaccurate. Pipe to pot transparency legislation for water supplies anyone?

 

Let's start with drinking water. For help, I turned to ProPublica's resident expert, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. (Heard of fracking? That's his work.) How do you know whether your water supply is safe? His answer:

 

"Short answer is that water testing is hyperlocalized. The first best thing you can do is get a clean water sample (using containers supplied by testing firm) from your own tap and have it tested. Should cost about $35. This is the only way to know for sure what you are drinking, and whether there is contamination between a government test location and your sink. Next step is to go the website of your local water utility. Every utility is required to test water to meet standards under the Federal Clean Water Act, and to post those test results annually. But there is no central database to go to for all municipalities, thus the need to check with your local water provider. Those are the two most important steps. After that it's up to personal curiosity and ambition to know where your water comes from."

 

FWIW, that final sentence should be a tattoo for any citizen investigative journalist. It applies to any quest for information from those in power. Government, corporations, your school principal. Ultimately it's up to you - your personal curiosity and ambition - to get what you need for you, your family and your community. The public is the most effective watchdog of public information.

 

Back to water. On a big scale, USA Today did a great series, Beyond Flint, which examined the safety of public drinking supplies in the United States. Their topline finding: Some 2,000 water systems, serving 6 million people, had recorded at least one test indicating high lead levels during the past four years.

 

But the reporters on the team also described how difficult it was to actually dig up the information. Alison Young, a super-experienced investigative reporter, had so much trouble trying to determine the safety of the water flowing into her own home that she opted to buy water filters.

 

Her colleague, Mark Nichols, with some two decades journalistic experience, was the reporter who battled with data found on the Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) website. The website is designed to compile inspection reports for local water agencies. Another place to look is the EPA's Consumer Confidence Reports, which rely on the same information, but are searchable in a slightly more user-friendly way.

 

The problem, however, is that the Government Accountability Office and the EPA Office of Inspector General have criticized the data for being inconsistent and outdated, as Nichols noted. Heck, even the EPA dumps on its own data, gathered from some 150,000 public water suppliers: "EPA is aware of inaccuracies and underreporting of some data in the Safe Drinking Water Information System." Your government at work, folks.

 

So here's where we are with water safety in America today. Highly experienced investigative reporters have a hard time getting the big picture. And it's not even that easy to figure out answers for your own tap. Though there are caveats, your first, best step is testing your own water.

 

All this points to an interesting possibility: crowdsourcing. That's the name given to a reporting technique in which reporters and readers work together to gather information. ProPublica has done this on a number of projects, including Free the Files, our examination of political spending at local television stations, and most recently Reliving Agent Orange, looking at intergenerational effects of the defoliant on the children of Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

 

Perhaps what is needed are crowdsourced water projects - an army of citizen water sleuths rising across the country to document the safety of water from the tap. I'll rely again on Dr. Seuss to frame a reporting tip, this time from The Lorax: "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

 

Keep sending in questions, tips, pressing ethical dilemmas. Democratize journalism! Write [email protected], or @txtianmiller.

 

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 

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Istanbul airport blasts: 36 killed; Turkish PM blames IS
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Wednesday blamed the Islamic State (IS) for the bombing attacks that killed 36 people and injured 60 others at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport on Tuesday night, the media reported.
 
Addressing the press at the airport, the premier said the attacks were carried out by three suicide bombers and all blew themselves up, Xinhua news agency reported.
 
US officials said the attack bears the hallmarks of IS because of the target and method, CNN reported.
 
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack should serve as a turning point in the global fight against militant groups, BBC reported. 
 
"The bombs that exploded in Istanbul could have gone off at any airport in any city around the world," Erdogan said.
 
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said earlier in Ankara that one terrorist opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle and then blew himself up.
 
A Turkish official was quoted as saying on Twitter that the vast majority of casualties are Turkish citizens, with foreigners among the dead and wounded.
 
The police have closed the entrances and exits of the airport, and some inbound flights to the airport have been diverted in the aftermath of the attacks, press reports said.
 
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has ordered the formation of a crisis desk.
 
Kerem Kinik, the head of Turkish Red Crescent, has appealed for blood donation.
 
The security situation in Turkey has deteriorated over the past year, with Istanbul, the national capital of Ankara and other cities having already been hit by a number of bombing attacks.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
  

 

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Queen Elizabeth in line for pay rise
Britain's Queen Elizabeth is set to receive a $ 72,000 a week pay rise, an official report revealed.
 
The Queen's income is based on a percentage of money earned by the Crown Estate, one of the wealthiest real estate owners in Britain, Xinhua news agency reported.
 
In its annual report issued on Tuesday, the Crown Estate disclosed that it has delivered a record $405 million to the Treasury in the past year.
 
Unless the current formula is altered, it will mean that in 2017 the Queen's pay packet will be almost $61 million, 6.5 per cent higher than the %57 million she is receiving this year, and representing a 57 per cent increase over what was paid in 2012.
 
The sum is worked out by paying to the Queen 15 per cent of the surplus made by the Royal Estate, paid two years in arrears.
 
The figure can only be changed by three royal trustees, the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Alan Reid, who has the title of the Queen's Keeper of the Privy Purse.
 
The three are currently in the process of a review which could affect the amount due to the monarch next year, a government official said.
 
A spokesman at Buckingham Palace said that it was too early to speculate on what the result would be or what amount the Queen would receive for 2017-18.
 
The report also showed the monarchy cost British taxpayers $53.5 million in 2015-16, with more than $21 million spent on the upkeep of royal households such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as well as other royal households and buildings.
 
The 90-year-old Queen and the royal family's official travel cost the taxpayer $5.4 million in the past year, a reduction of more than $1 million compared to 2015.
 
The Crown Estate owns London's Regent Street as well as the entire seabed around Great Britain. It also owns Windsor Great Park, and Ascot's famous racecourse, as well as estates and properties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and across England.
 
The office of the Crown Estate was started in 1760 when it was agreed that surplus revenue from the crown's estate would go to the Government Treasury. In return reigning monarchs receive an annual payment, 15 per cent of the annual surplus of the estate to support official royal duties.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
  

 

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