The Dig: Investigating the Safety of the Water You Drink

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Today, The Dig dives into water. Pun totally intended. I’ve received a lot of questions about applying investigative reporting techniques to figuring out whether your water is safe — the stuff in your taps, the stuff in your rivers, the stuff at the beach. Flint, Michigan, has made us all want to be water sleuths.

Fortunately, this is one of those topics that investigative journalists routinely tackle. And tackle is the right word, because unfortunately, it turns out to be a pretty difficult job. (One experienced reporter described wrestling with a water data set as battling the “monster” — giving a nerdy journalistic task a cool, Beowulfish feel.)

The difficulty is partly due to the complexity of the topic. Water is not simple. And there’s this: most drinking water in the U.S. is safe. But let’s be honest. Local, state and federal governments do not make it easy to access water safety information. Moreover, the data they possess is often outdated and inaccurate. Pipe to pot transparency legislation for water supplies anyone?

Let’s start with drinking water. For help, I turned to ProPublica’s resident expert, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. (Heard of fracking? That’s his work.) How do you know whether your water supply is safe? His answer:

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