Readers often ask me where we get our stories.
Sometimes, the stories come to us.
That was the case Wednesday, when we got a sobering call from Tacoma Water officials.
They had found lead in water samples from pipes leading to four Tacoma homes. They wanted to meet with us later that day to share the details and answer our questions.
Occasionally, a local institution asks to come in and break its news directly to our newsroom. Rarely are the stories as urgent as a possible public health emergency.
We could have declined the offer and raced to publication with a sensational online story telling readers the alarming few facts we’d heard. Given all the lead troubles in Flint, Michigan, the story was guaranteed great readership.
Or we could wait a few hours and publish a more fulsome, helpful story.
The answer was clear given how serious the issue, how little we knew and how high the potential to incite hysteria.
That afternoon, administrators from Tacoma Water, plus the water superintendents who tested the water and understood the results, all came in.
They brought three staff members from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, including the man who advises water districts across the county. And they had a director of the state health department’s office of drinking water join us by conference phone.
We filled the rest of the room with reporters, editors, a graphic artist and members of our editorial board.
For the next hour and a half, water officials explained what they’d found, how they found it and what it could mean to customers.
They had set out merely to devise a test for finding short pieces of flexible lead pipe — known as “goosenecks” — they knew existed within their system.
The feds hadn’t required it. They just knew — after Flint — they must go looking.
They had no idea they would draw water with such high lead concentrations, including one sample at 26 times the government’s “actionable” level. They were stunned and worried.
They unrolled a map covered in red dots locating the 1,700 or so homes they suspected might have goosenecks. They gave us all their testing numbers.
The questions came easily from the journalists in the room who live in the water district and have small children at home.
How do people find out if their homes are on the map? How can residents protect their families? Should you have your children tested?
Water officials responded to every question they could, but the situation was still evolving for them. They had gathered only two days earlier to analyze the test results and decide what to do.
They had several options at that point.
They could have kept quiet and kept testing. After all, they had tested only four houses of the suspected 1,700 with goosenecks of the 92,000 in the Tacoma Water system.
They could have notified only the residents of the four tested homes and kept searching for the rest of the goosenecks.
They could have postponed an announcement until they had a fully formed a plan of action.
For two reasons, they did none of the above.
First, even though it was bad news, water superintendents said they knew that telling everyone quickly was “the right thing to do.” Those at risk needed to know, and they could lessen their risk if they knew how to flush their pipes.
Second, water officials understand the flow of news in the modern world. A single post on Facebook from a customer told she has lead in her water pipe would have raced through the community at lightning speed. Too often, the “facts” get blurred as these stories are passed long.
Tacoma Water officials knew this story would get out one way or another. They asked us to help them do it in an accurate, quick, yet calm way.
So that’s what we tried to do.
Thursday’s front-page headline said the lead levels were “high,” as the officials had said, but also noted the sample size was small.
We shared the exact numbers from each of 28 samples taken at the four houses and also told readers that more than 98 percent of customers don’t have the lead goosenecks in question.
We published the map bearing 1,700 dots, knowing it would cause concern in some neighborhoods, but also reassure people in neighborhoods void of dots.
We told people how long to flush their pipes each day and where to go for water testing.
And we will stay on the story. There are plenty of hard questions we still need to ask Tacoma Water.
They know that. We have asked them hard questions before.
Tacoma Power is run by Tacoma Public Utilities, an organization we’ve sued in court to get information we believed the public needed to know.
But that was not a problem Wednesday.
It was remarkable to be in a room with everyone — water superintendents, health department officials and journalists — singularly focused on serving this community in a time of need.
CALLING HIGH SCHOOL ESSAY WRITERS
Area high school students have one more week to enter an essay contest that could win them $1,000.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, will take submissions for the 2016 Scott Johnson Open Government High School Essay Contest through April 30. I’m a member of the coalition’s board of directors.
The theme for this year’s essays is: “Police body cams, dash cams, and a camera on every street corner: An invasion of privacy or a needed step toward accountability and safety?”
The goal of the contest is to encourage young people to learn about open government matters.
The contest is named for the late Scott Johnson, who was a First Amendment lawyer and coalition board member.
Judging takes place in May. The contest is open to all high school students in Washington. For contest rules and more information, go to washingtoncog.org.