Investigation Details How Water May Be Tainted At Two LDS Properties
In the Uinta Mountains east of Park City, there’s a camp for girls called Aspencrest. It’s run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its water might be contaminated. In an investigation for High Country News, freelance journalist Emma Penrod details how Aspencrest and another property owned by the church have had problems with water quality, in some cases for years. But the Utah Division of Drinking Water has not issued any citations for non-compliance.
KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Penrod about her reporting and why she was drawn to the story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: You have fond memories of this camp yourself, right?
Emma Penrod: This was where my particular congregation — growing up — camped, and those were good times. Camp was something that I personally really enjoyed. I had gone through some hard times, and Aspencrest was a place that I could go and get away from those problems and not have to worry about being safe.
CB: How did you find out there might be a problem with the water at the camp?
EP: Spring of last year I had a former state environmental engineer approach me about some documents he had been collecting over the years, containing what he viewed as oversights or failures of the state government to effectively regulate drinking water. He was ultimately fired and began seeking an outlet for this information, and it was while looking through those documents that the name Aspencrest immediately stood out to me.
The camp’s water had for a period of about 24 years repeatedly failed a coliform bacteriological drinking water test. This classification of bacteria includes E. coli. The reason that they're tested is because it's understood that the bacteria wouldn't be getting into the drinking water if the drinking water system were sealed properly.
CB: What else did you find out about other instances of contamination linked to properties affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
EP: In addition to Aspencrest there was a rural church out in Dugway, Utah. They had installed a filtration system there because the groundwater in the area typically contains quite a lot of metals and minerals and things that can be harmful.
In this case, they had very high levels of manganese in the water, which is a mineral that's helpful and healthy in our bodies but only in small amounts. In significantly large amounts it's associated with developmental delays and can cause harm to infants, small children, and fetuses.
The church had decided to go ahead and put in a custom filter of its own make. Both the engineer that I spoke to and some people who actually sold them the parts for this filter were concerned that it possibly wouldn't work. There were indications when it was last inspected that the filter wasn't maybe working.
They were looking at the total amount of solid material in the water and it had been gradually increasing, which would be on track for what would be happening if the filter was failing in the way that the manufacturer predicted it would.
He figured it might work the first couple of times and it did. The church did test it and they submitted those tests to the state, and the tests verified that they had successfully reduced the level of manganese in the drinking water. And then there were no follow up tests.
CB: Your article focused not just on the contamination on what's happening but also how it could happen. When you dug down more, did it feel to you like this was some sort of intentional cover up or action by the church?
EP: There's no indication that the church necessarily went to the state government and said, “Hey, we've got some problem. You've got to keep it hush-hush for us.”
In fact, the engineer who brought this to my attention was actually kind of flummoxed by this. He wasn't accusing his superiors of having conspired with the LDS church. He just said there was this thinking that nothing bad could possibly happen. And as a result the Utah Division of Drinking Water was lenient toward these LDS properties.
CB: Is there something about the culture of the church that could have allowed this kind of contamination to happen at its facilities?
EP: I don't feel like this is a situation of bad people trying to get away with bad things. It might be a little bit trying to cut corners, but this isn't necessarily an impoverished organization. The church could afford this.
They could fix these problems, but it's much more likely this aspect of “we trust them.” Growing up LDS, you're taught that church leaders are infallible. In my experience you want to believe that, and that does lead to being very trusting of church leaders, because you think “Oh, God wouldn't allow something bad to happen.”
CB: Who did you write this article for?
EP: I wrote it very much from the perspective of one church member to others, so that they would know both what's going on at these facilities, because they have a right to know whether their water is safe or not.
And also, we as members we have a little bit of a habit, I think, of turning our brains off when information is coming from somebody from the church. We default assume that this is clearly coming from a good place. This is clearly well-intentioned, and that's not always the case.
There are people who are using the church — who are wolves in sheep's clothing and who are using this to get away with their own means. So, it is necessary — even when it's coming from within church sources — to still be skeptical.