Posted in Behind the News

Uranium in private wells? Reporters dig for answers

, by Lauren Easton

A year ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study saying one out of four private wells in California’s eastern San Joaquin Valley, in the country’s richest farming region, had dangerous levels of uranium.

AP Vice President for U.S. News Brian Carovillano tells what happened next in his weekly Best of the States memo to staff, which details a good example of accountability journalism that combined hard-nosed reporting and the mining of government data:

In this Monday, Sept. 14, 2015 photo, 9-year-old Carlos Velasquez drinks well water from a hose at a trailer park near Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)
San Francisco environmental writer Ellen Knickmeyer was surprised, and intrigued: Uranium? The stuff of power plants and nuclear bombs? She and Fresno’s Scott Smith, whose beat includes agriculture, dove into a state online tracking system, with the help of data journalist Serdar Tumgoren, and learned that tiny rural schools and communities were among those with dangerous levels of uranium in their well water. Were those tiny water systems really all following state laws on handling the uranium? And did private households get any warning or help for the potential dangers lurking in their wells? Using government data, field reporting and scientific studies, Knickmeyer and Smith found that authorities were doing little to inform residents about the growing hazard of uranium, which can damage kidneys and increase cancer risks, and that the government does not require monitoring of domestic wells that provide water to millions of Californians. Knickmeyer and Smith mined government websites and interviewed geologists, water experts and medical researchers to educate themselves on how uranium got into the water, its health dangers and ways to address them. They teamed with interactive producer Francois Duckett and video graphics manager Darrell Allen to produce an animation explaining how uranium gets into the ground water. Critical to their vivid descriptions of the people and places affected by the contamination was Seattle-based video journalist Manuel Valdes, who used his Spanish to help get access and connect with the residents of a trailer park that had dangerous levels of uranium for years. Valdes and photographer John Locher stayed for supper at one of the trailers, helping show through images the reality of the residents’ lives. The abridged and unabridged text, a sidebar, Locher’s photos, Valdes’ video and Duckett’s map were sent out in advance for members. The story was tops on AP Mobile, and at least six California newspapers put the story on their front page. It was displayed on national websites, including U.S. News and World Report, ABC and CBS… The story was also promoted, in advance and when it went live, on social media, including the main and region Twitter and Facebook accounts. Among the tweets was a video teaser. After the package was published, a state lawmaker said he is drafting a bill to fund testing of private wells for uranium. For their deeply reported, richly told piece of accountability journalism, Knickmeyer, Smith, Valdes, Locher and Duckett win this week’s $300 prize.