Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Zenith City Weekly
Zenith, an alternative paper in Duluth, Minnesota, faced an ethical dilemma reporting on water quality.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics is not only a matter of what a journalist should do, but also what she should not.

That was the dilemma facing Jennifer Martin-Romme, co-owner with her husband Taylor of the Zenith News in Duluth, Minnesota.

Back in 2012, a trusted source leaked a report to Martin-Romme showing that the drinking water wells of eight families in northern St. Louis county were tainted with manganese, a chemical that in high concentrations potentially could cause nerve and brain damage, especially in children.

“It seems almost impossible to publicize this information without identifying the affected individuals,” Martin-Romme said when she called Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance. “Even if they weren’t named, this pollution is fairly contained geographically in a low-population rural area. It would be easy to identify them and such a story is essentially branding them as at-risk for mental deficiencies or retardation. The negative impact that could have on their lives is obvious and enormous. What do I do? Help!”

Today, lead in the Flint, Michigan water supply has made water safety a national concern. This follow-up story reports the outcome of her dilemma, and whether the call to AdviceLine was helpful. Since it started taking calls from journalists in 2001, AdviceLine has handled more than 900 inquiries. Periodically, we contact journalists who called us to learn the rest of the story.

Mesabi Range
The Mesabi Range is a longtime mining region. Explore Minnesota photo.

Four years ago, Martin-Romme spoke with a former AdviceLine consultant, James Burke. “He really gave me tools to resolve ethical questions on my own,” said Martin-Romme.

One piece of advice from Burke still sticks in her mind. “He said serve your readers and avoid arrogance. I found that so helpful, I passed it on to other reporters.”

She called Burke “the kind of teacher who prepares you so you don’t need a teacher.” She recalls trying to achieve a delicate balance between “my responsibility to the readers, the source [of the leaked memo] and the well owners.”

The manganese story was highly technical, arising in the northeastern section of Minnesota known as the Mesabi Iron Range, where mining is a major industry. The impacted community sits next to a pile of mining wastes, said Martin-Romme. “There are a lot of places near mining waste on the Iron Range.”

“It was one of the most infuriating stories I’ve ever done,” said Martin-Romme, in part because she feared the state was minimizing the hazards of manganese.

‘… serve your readers and avoid arrogance.’

“I was in a quandary over what I should do for the well owners,” she said. “If the state has no responsibility to tell them [of the dangers], did I have the responsibility to tell them? People harshly told me I do have the responsibility.”

Martin-Romme said she accepted the leaked report from her confidential source with the understanding that she would not reveal the identities of the eight families with manganese in their water.

With the help of adviser Burke, Martin-Romme devised a plan to get more information, including state and federal reports. Burke noted that if another publication broke the manganese story first, it would appear that the Zenith News knew and kept silent. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “seek truth and report it.”

Her story was headlined, “The Well-Poisoners. Iron Range Drinking Water is Contaminated. The State of Minnesota Knew and Did Nothing.” It alleged that manganese levels in eight wells were up to 47 times above state health limits.

“The state does not consider that a problem,” said Martin-Romme. State officials sent letters notifying homeowners with a technical laboratory report, which Martin-Romme said was “difficult to understand unless you were a scientist.”

Jennifer Martin-Romme
Jennifer Martin-Romme

Martin-Romme did not name the families in her story. It was not clear if the families were drinking tap water from the contaminated wells, filtered water or an untainted alternative.

Her reporting showed that some wells in the area were contaminated by manganese while others were not. The difference, she discovered, was that some of the private wells were dug into glacial drift consisting of gravel, sand and clay. This water had the highest concentration of manganese. Wells dug into bedrock were not tainted. This suggested that manganese was seeping through loose soil nearby.

“Proximity to the mining waste was also a factor,” she said. “There were eight wells in glacial drift and seven in bedrock. Only three of those dug into glacial drift did not exceed standards, but they were farther away from the mining waste and/or separated from it by a body of water. The ones dug into bedrock were not tainted, even if they were closer to the waste. The state denies this, but the correlation is quite clear” from underground mapping.

All the wells Martin-Romme investigated are private. The U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate regulate private drinking water wells. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their safety, unlike public drinking water supplies that must be sampled periodically and are regulated by clean water standards.

EPA regulates more than 90 contaminants in public drinking water, setting allowable limits. Nine officials were charged for allegedly overing up toxic lead levels in Flint’s water.

The manganese issue was complicated. EPA in 2004 issued a health advisory. Manganese is naturally occurring and an essential nutrient, it said, but “chronic exposure to high doses may be harmful.” Health studies indicated symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.

‘It was one of the most infuriating stories I’ve ever done.’

The agency did not set a standard that would trigger federal enforcement action. Typically, overexposure to manganese comes from food or inhalation in work settings. Less is known about the toxicity of manganese in drinking water.

The federal agency named manganese in unregulated “secondary standards” aimed at reducing 15 contaminants that are nuisances in drinking water, but not considered health threats. Manganese can turn drinking water black or brown, or cause a bitter metallic taste.

The Minnesota Department of Health in 2012 issued a two-tiered “manganese guidance” for drinking water: one limit for children and adults, and a lower limit for infants less than 1 year old who might drink plain tap water or formula prepared with tap water. This replaced a 2008 guidance document.

Martin-Romme believes the department relaxed the standard for manganese. “So I did not accomplish anything,” she said. “I wish I could tell you I’ve made a difference.”

By now, manganese in the groundwater might be dissipating.

“It was starting to already,” said Martin-Romme, “even back in 2009, which is a sign of manganese coming from an external source rather from the surrounding bedrock.”

Launched in 2007 as the Zenith City Weekly, the alternative newspaper has a circulation of 11,000 and is now published every three weeks. “We’re a citizen journalism project,” Martin-Romme said. It has a staff of about 40, with five full-time writers, freelancers, a photographer and cartoonists.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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