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How to Prepare for PFAS (& Avoid a PR Disaster)

Reporter discusses impact of PFAS contamination in water

“A town’s water is contaminated with ‘forever chemicals’ – how did it get this bad?” That’s one of the headlines that residents of Pittsboro, North Carolina, woke up to earlier this year when the Guardian published a story about the community’s water supply.

Researchers had found that a local Chemours/DuPont chemical plant had released potentially toxic amounts of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”—into the town’s water supply.

As more of these investigations play out in the public eye, PFAS represents one of the greatest threats to public confidence in drinking water in recent memory. 

For municipal leaders and water operators across the country, the question is: what can you do to prepare?

PFAS goes public

PFAS entered the national conversation just a few years ago, but research has already linked them to everything from liver cancer to reproductive health issues, and some states have moved to ban them altogether. Congress began to move on PFAS last month when it passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which will require the EPA to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water in the future.

Although the EPA already includes PFAS on the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), few laws currently exist dictating what utilities should and shouldn’t be doing about PFAS.

But if you ask WaterPIO founder and communications expert Mike McGill, utilities waiting for directives from legislators are missing a key opportunity to position themselves as leaders on the issue.

“The next time the EPA updates UCMR, you might have to start testing for dozens of different PFAS, and those testing requirements might cover more and smaller utilities. And if that’s the case, you’ll have to start communicating about PFAS as soon as you can.”

The price of waiting

Much is still unknown about the exact health risks posed by PFAS and the best ways to eliminate them from our water supply. But one thing is for sure: just because PFAS isn’t a problem in your backyard right now doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually be.

“Academics and activists are out there in the interest of protecting public health. They’re going to conduct tests in our waterways, and they are going to find these chemicals, and when they do find them, they’re going to keep making headlines,” says Mike McGill, who like many other water experts, believes we’re due for a reckoning on PFAS.

He says that if utilities don’t become the first communicators on the subject—that is, the first point of truth that the public turns to for accurate PFAS information in the local water supply—they risk losing control of the narrative completely.

“It becomes a scandal, if you will. Then suddenly we have to start throwing solutions against the wall to make up for the fact that we’re behind. And that’s where you start making mistakes.”

Utilities that choose to wait until they’re forced to respond risk the following:

  • Losing time and money

Waiting can get expensive. McGill recalls how one water utility in North Carolina spent more than $150 million on a facility to treat water for less than 100,000 people in a rush to address a local PFAS contamination.

PFAS treatment technologies like granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange are already expensive, but if utilities wait until they’re forced to act, they risk scrambling to calm a distraught customer base and hastily picking a treatment solution that might not work for them in the long term.

  • Losing control of the narrative

Just because utilities didn’t create the PFAS problem doesn’t mean they should be afraid of taking responsibility and claiming the issue as their own. 

Not doing so could mean that someone else—regulators, environmentalists, manufacturers, or even customers themselves—takes control of the narrative. And as McGill emphasizes, when utility customers discover that they have potential carcinogens in their drinking water, “it wasn’t me!” probably won’t cut it as an excuse.

“If you’re not leading the conversation, then the customer is [simply] going to blame the utility for something they didn’t do.”

  • Eroding trust

Utilities will have to ‘go first’ when it comes to communicating the threats and challenges of PFAS, and for many organizations—especially smaller utilities not used to doing lots of communications work—doing so might seem like a nerve-wracking experience.

But McGill says waiting could fundamentally erode a utility’s relationship with its customers.

“I used to run a newsroom for a couple of years, and we had an old adage: ‘if I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last.’” 

Testing, treatment, and transparency

If you’re looking to get ahead of PFAS, Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency sets a shining example for a successful communications strategy.

In 2019, California state officials started asking utilities to test wells for PFAS contaminants. The order didn’t require agencies to take any further action, even if they discovered high levels of these contaminants.

Still, when SCV discovered that one of their wells had exceeded the 70 nanograms per liter advisory level, they sprung into action. They shut down the contaminated well, and began sampling all of their other wells for PFAS. 

The agency quickly put in motion plans to build a new treatment facility, but its plan would rely on an even more immediate line of defence. 

SCV embarked on an ambitious communications campaign to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open, led by communications manager Kathie Martin.

The agency began posting regular updates about PFAS testing, changes in regulations, and progress on their (now complete) treatment facility construction to a dedicated portal on their website, social media, and the agency’s email newsletter. Customers also had ample opportunity to learn about PFAS offline, at community meetings and via direct mail.

“Not only were we trying to be completely transparent upfront. We also wanted to be a little bit ahead of the game. That turned out to be the right decision,” says SCV operations director Mike Alvord.

The benefits of communicating proactively on PFAS

So, should your agency take a leap of faith, or adopt a “wait and see” approach? 

Experts like Mike McGill argue that effectively communicating on the issue could result in lasting, long term benefits:

  • Develop a leadership advantage

‘Going first’ on PFAS won’t just allow utilities to cut down on public relations risk. It could also permanently cement their place as leaders and experts on the issue, building lasting credibility with customers, media and other stakeholders who are looking for answers. 

“If you are willing to get out front and say, ‘we’re going to test, and we want to go above and beyond, because that’s what we think our role is as the provider of safe clean drinking water is,’ there’s a lot of power behind that. Especially when you get results,” points out McGill. 

  • Influence policy

One specific advantage to adopting a leadership position on an under-regulated contaminant like PFAS is that utilities stand to meaningfully shape policy as it’s being written. 

The more effective utilities are at communicating the on-the-ground realities of treating water for PFAS, the more likely it is that those realities will inform future legislation.

  • Build more proactive organizations in general

The benefits of effectively communicating on issues like PFAS also go beyond any single contaminant or treatment project.

As SCV’s Alvord points out, his organization’s radically transparent approach to the issue did more than just alleviate Santa Clarita Valley residents’ fears about PFAS. It also helped his organization come together and build a strong work culture in the wake of an 2018 SCV agency merger that combined four separate water utilities into one.

“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord, noting how SCV’s efforts to remain transparent to the public also ended up making the organization more transparent to itself, and therefore more cohesive.

“If we were separate, I think it would have been much more difficult.”

Proven practices for PFAS PR

Taking a lessons from agencies like SCV, here are some approaches to consider as you look to communicate how your agency is acting on the PFAS problem:

1. Take credit for your work

The first step of any good PFAS communication strategy is to take stock of what your organization is already doing about the issue, and to not be afraid to brag about it. 

Have you already started testing for certain PFAS? Has your utility already started working with PFAS treatment technologies like reverse osmosis, GAC, and ion exchange? Then your customers need to hear about it.

Make sure that any valuable work you’re already doing on PFAS doesn’t get buried or confined to just one communication channel, either. 

“I worked with one utility that tested for 75 different PFAS, and their data was spectacular. But they only made a passing reference about that in their water quality report,” points out Mike McGill. 

These types of documents tend to get buried on your website. If you’re not actively pushing this information out to the public, it will likely fall by the wayside.

2. Identify other PFAS advocates and experts

It might also be useful to take stock of other experts in your network or area who might be doing important PFAS work.

Are there any local academics who have published research on PFAS in the past? Environmentalists who have lobbied local governments? Media outlets who have published stories about PFAS? Now might be a good time to become familiar with them and their work, and use it to inform your strategy. 

3. Take a leadership role

Even if your utility already does excellent work on PFAS and has good relationships with external stakeholders, you might still feel apprehensive about broadcasting those efforts to your customers. 

McGill understands why utilities might be nervous to take the lead, but he says that the ones that do stand to benefit far more in the long run than those who stay quiet.

“You need to become a thought leader, because by doing so you help out the entire industry. You show the path of how to handle it properly.”