#ThankYouNewspapers for informing your communities: Unwell Water

  • Oct 13, 2016

Cara Neil, Communications Director

In 2015, an investigative team for the Bucks County Courier Times (Levittown) and The Intelligencer (Doylestown), developed the “Unwell Water” series based on their coverage of water contamination near the area’s Navy bases since 2014. The investigation grew after the newsroom received a tip that mysterious health issues had been plaguing communities near the bases for decades.

The tip surfaced around the same time that research into perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfate showed more evidence that the chemicals may cause health issues. After learning that Bucks and Montgomery Counties had high levels of these chemicals in their water, community members asked the Navy to pay for nearly 70,000 blood tests of the citizens who were exposed to the contaminated water; the Navy said no.

“Our initial story had an immediate impact with our readers, communities, and lawmakers, eventually leading to action (calling on the Navy to cover the costs related to biomonitoring and blood testing) from both Pennsylvania senators and Gov. Tom Wolf,” said Kyle Bagenstose, an environmental reporter at the Courier Times and one of three reporters covering the “Unwell Water” series.

 “Unwell Water,” continued, and a key moment in the project occurred when Erin Brockovich-associated law firm Weitz and Luxenberg held a packed-house community meeting in Montgomery County in June, 2016. During the meeting, dozens of residents asked questions, describing unusual cancers, high numbers of illness in their neighborhoods, and health issues passed from generation to generation.

After the meeting, the news team modified its approach from purely investigative to include educational information in their stories. They added an online FAQ, made interactive maps and hosted an hour-long, Facebook Live event that they archived on their website. These tools have now been accessed by nearly 200,000 visitors and became an effective resource for residents new to the issues.

“This is still a scary time for some 100,000 residents of the communities we serve,” Bagenstose said, “So I personally feel it’s too early to label anything as a positive outcome. But, I like to think that the resources our news organization has devoted to investigating the contamination and educating our readers has helped them make sense of a complex, mysterious, and upsetting situation.”

Read the entire “Unwell Water” series on The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times websites.

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