3M’s factory along the Mississippi River, near the village of Cordova, Ill., manufactures adhesives for popular products like Post-Its Notes and Scotch Tape. In November 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that PFAS contamination from the 3M factory created “an imminent and substantial endangerment” of public and private drinking water supplies. (Nick Rohlman / The Gazette)
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This story was first published by Investigative Reporters and Editors in a special pollution-themed issue of The IRE Journal  in 2023. 

When radio reporter Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco traveled to the Iowa-Illinois border in early November, he found many residents unaware. They hadn’t heard that their drinking water might be contaminated with PFAS, and a major local employer was responsible.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just announced that PFAS contamination from a large 3M factory north of Cordova, Illinois, created “an imminent and substantial endangerment” of drinking water supplies for nearly 300,000 people. In a November EPA order, Minnesota-based 3M agreed to investigate contamination in private wells and public water systems.

PFAS (short for “per and polyfluoroalkyl substances”) are a class of more than 12,000 human-made compounds that accumulate in the environment and human bodies over time. Increased testing is revealing PFAS in public drinking systems, groundwater and surface waters nationwide. Scientists link two of the most widely researched chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to a range of health problems that include altered hormone levels, decreased birth weight, digestive inflammation and ulcers, high cholesterol, hypertension in pregnancy and kidney and testicular cancers.

PFAS are ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products, such as fabric stain protectors, firefighting foam, food packaging, lubricants, non-stick cookware, paints and waterproof clothing. Most Americans encounter them through the foods they eat, dust, and hand-to-mouth contact with PFAS-treated products.

Local public officials, 3M and the EPA could not or would not provide a definitive answer to a basic question asked by Ramirez- Franco and others reporting on the 3M Cordova contamination: Is the water safe to drink?

Instead, they recommended that residents contact their health care providers, consider installing home filters or surf the EPA’s website for answers. For consumers, PFAS are ripe with confusion. For journalists, too.

When the EPA’s press release came out, it initially appeared to be a local story. But one of our local editors at the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, a consortium of 16 news outlets from the headwaters of the river to the delta, saw regional significance. The EPA’s order has echoes in the Twin Cities, where 3M previously contaminated groundwater with PFAS near its Cottage Grove plant in the East Metro.

After the 3M story broke, an ad hoc team of reporters and editors joined a video call to discuss coverage plans. The group included Chloe Johnson, our Star Tribune reporter; Ramirez-Franco, from WNIJ Northern Public Radio in DeKalb, Illinois; Erin Jordan, a veteran environmental reporter at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Bennet Goldstein, an investigative reporter at Wisconsin Watch in Madison, Wisconsin, who has extensive experience covering the emerging contaminants; with editors James Shiffer of the Star Tribune and Tegan Wendland at the Desk.

Johnson authored the first story with reporting help from the team, focusing on the basics of the case and the national context. Ramirez-Franco produced a short radio newscast story to accompany the print article and we used stock art from the Star Tribune. Four outlets picked up the piece.

After Ramirez-Franco’s subsequent reporting trip, he produced a feature-length radio report for broadcast on NPR stations in our distribution network. Goldstein produced a print version of the story with additional reporting. Wendland and Shiffer edited both works. Meanwhile, Johnson was working on a follow-up.

The Desk is trying to do something novel: conceive of an ecological region (that spans 31 states and two Canadian provinces) as a news region.

Defining what a “regional story” is has been somewhat of an experiment. We make that determination based on a few factors: Does it impact a lot of people in the basin? Does it help audiences understand local issues within a broader context? Is it helpful, inspiring and informative?

Based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in collaboration with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Desk works with 10 environmental reporters who report on agriculture and the environment and then shares that content for free. Members have weekly editorial meetings and talk constantly on Slack.

3M’s 500,000-square-foot along the Mississippi River, near the village of Cordova, Ill., employs more than 500 workers and manufactures adhesives for popular products like Post-Its Notes and Scotch Tape. (Nick Rohlman / The Gazette)

Reporting on emerging contaminants brings a particular set of challenges. Often, regulation has not caught up with the science, and the science can be contentious or companies might make it sound like it is.

The federal government recently issued guidelines that indicate no amount of PFOA and PFOS are safe for consumption, along with proposed rules that would limit their presence

in public water systems. However, companies and municipal governments often stress that the science is new and changing and that the EPA’s analysis is flawed.

Several trends emerged as the Desk’s reporters tackled the 3M stories.

It was difficult to obtain answers from the EPA, city leaders and 3M alike. To their credit, the

entities helped us nail down a timeline of events and provided technical details pertaining to the investigation. But we struggled to obtain more specific information that could help residents on the ground.

We often encountered responses like: “EPA cannot comment on an ongoing or potential enforcement matter.” “Our continued engagement with the EPA will build on our strong existing foundation of progress and investment, and we are committed to keeping our communities and neighbors informed of our progress.” “We will update residents whenever we have new information.”

PFAS exist under a patchwork of confusing regulations that make them difficult to compare across state lines. Some states enforce drinking water limits for, perhaps, two or three of the chemicals, while others might regulate a cluster of others. Still others regulate none. And even states that limit the same PFAS in drinking water often have differing safety thresholds. This leaves the public with little standard guidance, and reporters with the responsibility of making sense of the science.

We were challenged to report this series on deadline when it came to obtaining expert sources. Academics can be slow to respond, especially when they are teaching. Fortunately, seasoned journalist Jordan already had an established relationship with a source.

Since the Desk launched in June 2022, covering breaking news has been a goal and a challenge. With such a large and dispersed team, the production of multimedia and in- depth features has been our strength. But our goal is to provide relevant, timely coverage to news outlets throughout the basin, especially to smaller outlets in news deserts. Breaking news is an essential part of that service.

The expertise of our team, and the sheer number of reporters we have on the ground, benefit all of our partners. We experiment with different ways of configuring mini-teams to cover breaking stories. When news breaks, we collaborate with photographers at some of our outlets. We draw on the knowledge of our journalists, mentors, and also from long-time staff editors at partnering newsrooms. Print reporters also benefit from radio production training.

We’re one of many innovative news collaborations in the U.S. today. Other climate collaborations exist, but we’re doing something a little different by covering the river basin as a

discrete region, attempting to draw connections up and downstream that help readers understand how issues in middle America impact those living on the coast.

Since launching, we have published more than 400 stories while continually experimenting with different methods of storytelling and reader engagement. We can’t purport to know the best way to cover complicated breaking stories as a collaborative team, but we hope that sharing our experience and challenges provide insight for others pursuing the same kind of journalism.

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Bennet Goldstein reports on water and agriculture as Wisconsin Watch’s Report for America representative on the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk — a collaborative reporting network across the Basin. Before this, Goldstein was on the breaking news team at the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. He has spent most of his career at daily papers in Iowa, including the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Goldstein’s work has garnered awards, including the Associated Press Media Editors award for an explanatory feature about a police shooting in rural Wisconsin, and an Iowa Newspaper Association award for a series that detailed the impacts of the loss of social safety net programs on Dubuque’s Marshallese community. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.