How I reported on the silent battle over nitrate pollution in Nebraska’s water

Published on
July 13, 2023

My eyes opened wide when I saw the nitrate reading on this family’s drinking water well — at 30 parts per million, it was far above the safe drinking water standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The family lives in rural Nebraska, surrounded by cornfields. The son, Nick Herringer, has a rare form of brain cancer. Scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have found a link between areas with high brain cancer rates and areas with high nitrate concentrations in groundwater. They suspect that ingesting nitrate may be the culprit behind many pediatric cancers like Nick’s.

Nebraska has the seventh-highest pediatric cancer rate nationwide and the highest of states west of Pennsylvania. 

Groundwater that supplies water to the majority of Nebraskans has been contaminated by a variety of sources that generate nitrate. A key culprit in the heavily agricultural state? Excessive nitrogen fertilizer from commodity crop production and from concentrated feeding operations where manure leads to nitrate leaching. In sandy soils, the odorless and colorless contaminant can quickly reach the aquifer. From there it gets into our drinking water. 

National and state research has uncovered correlations between high nitrate exposure and certain pediatric cancers, colorectal cancer and thyroid disease. 

And Nebraska’s nitrate pollution problem has gone on for decades. While experts in public health and natural resource management have known about this issue for decades, the issue has been largely invisible to the state’s general public. Why? Nitrate pollution is difficult to manage and complicated to trace back to its source. And the unique regulatory system designed for local control has allowed nitrate leaching to continue. 

I approached the story as a multi-part series showcasing different aspects of the problem: the health impactregulatory failurecosts of treating water and potential solutions proposed by experts.

Touch on the basics 

A lot of Nebraskans don’t know what nitrate is, including me before I reported on it. I had to understand the science behind nitrate leaching. It took me quite a while to grasp how nitrate leaching happens and how to use the right language to describe it.

If it was that hard for me, I thought, it must be hard for readers to understand. So we relied on visuals to explain how nitrogen fertilizer gets converted to nitrate and enters our aquifer and water supplies. 

We asked multiple experts to check our graphics and description. I also rode with farmers out in their fields to make sure I describe farming activities accurately. 

I had multiple meetings with medical doctors and public health experts to understand what the research findings mean: The Environmental Protection Agency set the safe drinking water limit at 10 parts per million, the official maximum level of nitrate that the EPA believes we can consume without adverse health impact. The standard was designed for blue baby syndrome, a condition that could be fatal for infants. But after researching the literature, and conducting data analysis on Nebraska, these experts who uncovered the correlation between high nitrate and pediatric cancer rates said they believe the standard should be lowered when considering health risks of pediatric cancers. 

For this series, I was trying to figure out the scope of how many wells were over the EPA standard, irrigation and monitoring wells are measured more sporadically by local entities like natural resources districts, separate from public water systems that are measured more routinely. Domestic wells are not required by federal, state or local authorities to be tested. I had to ask for the number of public water systems with nitrate violations and only got it after a few attempts.

My outlet was first told that such records don’t exist. But we obtained a similar dataset and used it in our subsequent requests to ask for the statewide numbers. Through this dataset, I found out since 2010, 59 public water systems in Nebraska have recorded at least one violation of the EPA standard. 

Writing with real people

It was a bright and sunny August afternoon in Omaha. I stepped out of our newsroom, took a deep breath and dialed the number once again. 

I was calling Tammy Herringer, Nick’s mom, whose well tested at three times the EPA limit, and higher in nitrate than 99% of the 500-plus wells tested by the local utilities.

I told myself I’d try one more time before starting to write, because to me, I could not think of another way to start the story about the toll nitrate has taken on Nebraskans, especially on the state’s most vulnerable residents — children. 

Nick’s mother and I had a very long phone conversation, but she decided not to be included in the story before I went to visit them, as they had started to navigate a new round of treatment for Nick. I waited for a month before calling again, hoping she would change her mind. 

And she did. 

Tammy didn’t know about the high nitrate reading in her family well, nor the link between nitrate and pediatric cancer. I had to tell her about it.

She asked me: “Why is the well so high in nitrate? What does it mean? Can a filter or water softener take it out? Can we ever know if Nick's cancer is related to nitrate?” 

We don’t know exactly how many families have been drinking water with dangerous nitrate levels or how common cancer is in this population. That’s because state records are scattered and hosted by different agencies. So far, the best we could do is show the expanding geographical area of nitrate levels over the EPA limit. The median nitrate level statewide has nearly doubled since the 1970s. Some 6,000 wells along the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers, near where the bulk of Nebraska’s population is concentrated in Omaha, had nitrate readings higher than the EPA limit of 10 parts per million.

I am glad that I had the conversation with Tammy after having established a solid understanding of the subject matter from my interviews with researchers. Correlation is not causation. I kept reminding myself that all I can do is tell them what I know and ask them about how they feel.

Report on regulations

The regulatory system in Nebraska is very unique: Apart from a state environmental agency that handles point source pollution, which is traceable pollution, nonpoint source pollution — which tends to be larger in scale and hard to trace — is governed by unique entities in Nebraska called natural resources districts. These are watershed-based government entities that focus on local control on water quantity and quality. 

But no natural resources district regulates how much nitrogen fertilizer can be used. Only certain farmers are required to self-report nitrogen fertilizer usage, and the districts don’t have the manpower to verify those numbers. Similarly, it often took years before the Department of Energy and Environment officials acted on high nitrate readings, and their recommendations rarely went past “continued monitoring,” public records suggested. 

Reporting on the regulatory system posed a lot of challenges. Each natural resources district makes its own rules, so I had to keep a tracking sheet of what each district’s rules are on nitrate and requested public meeting minutes from different districts.

Rules made by local NRD authorities lack teeth — staff prefer to be on good terms with ag producers and can only go to court after repeated violations of district rules on certain management practices (such as when and how to apply nitrogen fertilizers). Sometimes staff and board members don't even follow their own rules. 

To understand the challenges faced by these regulators, I watched board meetings where some board members and meeting attendees vehemently opposed proposed rules to strengthen regulations.

In some of the obtained email correspondence, NRD managers expressed frustration about the slow-moving pace of nitrate management efforts. Some pro-regulation NRD board members, facing pushback against intensified regulations, were voted out of office and others did not seek reelection.

But the most memorable part about reporting on regulations was a legal fight for records priced at $44,103.11 by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, something I didn’t foresee when I submitted the fellowship reporting proposal to the Center for Health Journalism in 2022. 

Since the emails from natural resources districts revealed a lot about the inner workings of those regulatory entities, we asked for emails containing certain keywords, such as “nitrate,” from about 80 state Department of Environment and Energy officials. The department claimed that the fees were assessed to account for time NDEE employees needed to review which emails related to our request and which ones should remain confidential.

We sued the department and the district court judge ruled in our favor, saying in a ruling that the department inappropriately applied the state’s open records law. “Nowhere does the statute permit a fee for non-attorney employees to review to ‘determine whether there is any basis or requirement to keep certain records, or portions of records, confidential.’”

But the state appealed the lower court decision and the case is still pending as of April 2023. We didn’t give up on fighting for public records, and we will not in the future, even if it takes time.