Communicating with Customers about Contamination Clean-Up

contamination sign

By Valentina Marastoni-Bieser

Utilities that detect toxic chemicals such as PFAS in their water source have to decide on the best possible approach to communicate about it to community members, treat the water, and pay for cleanup costs. Because so many water providers are facing this issue, there is precedent for both how to deal with public messaging and how to cover treatment costs.

Communicating with Customers

Americans rank contaminated drinking water as one of the top public health risks. Fear surrounding PFAS specifically has grown exponentially in the past years. When communicating with stakeholders about contaminated water it’s important to be proactive while remaining calm. 

Effective communication begins with developing an appropriate messaging strategy. Consulting with utility employees, local government officials, and health departments to craft an informative and consistent message is critical before going public.

Best Practices for Crisis and Emergency Communications

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a useful set of principles for communicating before, during, and after a crisis:

1. Be first.

Often, people remember and rely upon the first source of information they find. If news and/or social media have run with a story about water quality before an agency issues a statement, the best thing to do is respond directly as soon as possible.  

2. Be right.

Use plain language to explain the situation and express what information is known or unknown at that moment. Overly technical language can frustrate and confuse readers.

3. Be credible.

Communicating with transparency and accuracy will make you a trusted information source. 

4. Express empathy.

Messaging should speak to your community’s needs. Use words and body language that promote understanding and compassion for the harm the issue may have caused. 

5. Promote action.

People want to know how they can lessen their exposure to contaminants and what you are doing to rectify the situation. Detailing your next steps is comforting, and action points can help provide purpose in uncertain times.

6. Show respect.

Attempts to over-reassure or suppress information often cause more harm than good. The best way to show respect in messaging about water quality risks is to be open and candid. 

Utilities that tackle water contamination proactively are often the most successful and ultimately benefit the affected community.

Paying for the cost of clean up

Many of the threats posed to public drinking water today arise from the use of defective commercial products near surface and groundwater sources, or from consumer products that release harmful chemicals into the water through everyday use. A growing number of water systems across the US are filing lawsuits seeking to hold corporate polluters responsible for their actions and cost of treating the water.

Litigation process

Litigation can sound intimidating and complex. It is helpful to know what is involved and what to expect when filing a lawsuit against a toxic chemical polluter. It is also helpful to rely on a law firm with extensive water contamination litigation experience, to navigate the process more easily and lessen the time and resources your team will need to allocate to the case.

Below is a snapshot of the steps a water contamination litigation firm, such as SL Environmental Law Group, would take on behalf of a water utility:

  1. Investigation – After contaminants are detected in a water system, the legal team will begin preliminary factual research and try to help identify the probable source.
  2. Filing the lawsuit and initial disclosures – Once the legal team has determined there is a good faith basis to pursue legal action and identified one or more defendant(s), a complaint is filed on behalf of the utility. The legal team and utility collaborate to find and provide evidence.
  3. Fact discovery – Both sides are able to access information in their opponent’s possession. Requests to turn over documents and provide information are common.
  4. Mediation – At any point during the case, accused polluters may be willing to settle instead of going to trial. This sometimes involves the use of a mediator. The legal team will help decide on an appropriate sum in the case of settlement.
  5. Expert discovery – The legal team conducts additional research. This may include consulting specialists to provide expert analysis.
  6. Settlement or trial – Once evidence has been exchanged the parties may decide to settle or go to trial.

Understanding how to communicate about water contamination and how to pursue shifting treatment costs to polluters are two critical components of dealing with water contamination. Gathering as much information as possible and relying on communication and water contamination litigation experts can help you make the best decision for your utility and community members when the time comes for you to act.

Valentina Marastoni-Bieser is vice president of client engagement for SL Environmental Law Group. This article is sponsored content from SL Environmental Law Group.

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