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Lessons From Flint, Michigan's Water Crisis

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As many as 100,000 people in Flint, Michigan were exposed to harmful concentrations of lead in the city’s drinking water. In an attempt to save money,...

As many as 100,000 people in Flint, Michigan were exposed to harmful concentrations of lead in the city’s drinking water.  In an attempt to save money, the city decided to disconnect from Detroit's water system and began to use water from the corrosive Flint River. 

Curt Guyette, the investigative reporter who broke the story, visited Rhode Island as part of an annual lecture series organized by the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island. He sat down with Rhode Island Public Radio environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza to talk about how he uncovered this public health crisis as a reporter for the ACLU of Michigan

PART 1: Curt Guyette talks about how he, scientists and residents worked together to uncover how residents in Flint, Michigan were being poisoned by lead in the city's drinking water.PART 2: Curt Guyette discusses the fallout from his reporting and the role the media and activism played in exposing this public health crisis.

Interview Highlights

On why the ACLU of Michigan created an investigative reporter position

With a grant from the Ford Foundation, the ACLU of Michigan created an investigative reporter position to examine the impacts of Michigan's emergency manager law. The branch was familiar with Curt Guyette’s work over the course of more than 30 years as an investigative reporter, editor and columnist, primarily in the alternative press in Detroit.  So they tapped him for the job.

Guyette describes Michigan's emergency manager law as the most extreme receivership law in the United States.

"Financially struggling cities, school districts, counties can be taken over by the state and essentially replace all local units of government and have absolute authority and there's nothing that elected officials or the residents of these places can do,” said Guyette. “So that was essentially my beat, anything involving emergency management was my beat.”

Guyette said more than half of Michigan’s African American population at one point lived in cities that were under control of emergency managers, which meant their local elected officials had no power.

“So more than half of the African Americans in Michigan had lost their access to local democracy, which is part of the reason the ACLU was concerned about the effects of this emergency manager law,” said Guyette.

On why emergency managers switched the source of Flint’s drinking water

The governor-appointed emergency manager in Flint decided to disconnect from Detroit’s drinking water system and start using water from the Flint River to save $5 million.

“Flint is the home of General Motors and people in Flint refer to the Flint River as GM's sewer,” said Guyette. “It's just a pretty foul water source, and it's also very highly corrosive.”

Flint had gotten pre-treated drinking water from Detroit for 50 years and its water treatment plant didn’t have any experience treating water.

“And there were problems from the very beginning, even though the city and the state claimed residents would not notice any change,” said Guyette. “It looked bad; it smelled bad, [it] tasted bad.”

Flint residents became sick with the e-coli virus because the water treatment plant was too ill-equipped to properly treat the water. They issued a series of notices to boil water.

“And in response to the e-coli contamination, they increased the levels of chlorine that they were using to kill the bacteria,” said Guyette. The increased levels of chlorine led to increased levels of a carcinogenic byproduct called trihalomethanes, “which was present in the water at unacceptable levels for months and months.”

City officials didn’t inform its residents about these unsafe levels of THM because there's no law that mandates them to do so.

“There was nothing saying they couldn't tell people, but there was nothing saying that they had to,” said Guyette.

Guyette started to home in on this water crisis story when the city finally disclosed the high levels of THM. He then focused his reporting on lead contamination after he learned that a child had been poisoned with lead.

On how residents and scientists worked together to uncover the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water

LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident, contacted a water expert, Miguel Del Toral, at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help. Del Toral then reached out to Mark Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech.

They tested water from Walters’ home and found lead levels were exceedingly high: 13,200 parts per billion. “[That’s] more than two and a half times what it takes for the water to be classified as hazardous waste,” explained Guyette.

The problem stemmed from the fact that the water treatment plant was not using the required corrosion control chemicals to treat the Flint River water.

Del Toral laid out this problem in an internal EPA memo, describing it as widespread due to all the old lead service lines that run throughout Flint.

Guyette filed a story about this lead problem and published the memo. State officials declined to grant him an interview, but granted interviews to reporters at Michigan Radio. “They followed up on what I reported and did get the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to comment,” said Guyette. “And the chief spokesman (a guy named Brad Wurfel) said very confidently that there was no widespread problem with lead in Flint's water and that people there should just ‘relax.’”

On why independently testing Flint’s drinking water was important

To get to the bottom of the truth, Guyette and Edwards decided to pursue independent water testing. Edwards secured a grant through the National Science Foundation to conduct scientifically rigorous testing of the water and even contributed $200,000 of his own money to pay for the tests.

“We distributed 300 sample kits to residents of Flint [and] collected 277 of them,” said Guyette. They wanted the integrity of the tests to be bulletproof.  

“We knew they were going to be taking their shots at us, so making sure that every part of the city was hit (tested) was part of that,” said Guyette.

Residents would mail back kits to Edwards in batches of 12 kits. By the time Virgina Tech had reviewed 24 samples, they knew statistically that the lead levels were much higher than what city and state officials were reporting from their own water test results.

“The city and state consistently showed that the lead levels were below the federal action level of 15 ppb,” said Guyette. “I was able to find out by obtaining documents through the Freedom of Information Act and conducting interviews that the city and state were cheating on their tests.

“All along, the government's response was either to deny there was a problem and attack the credibility of people who were trying to tell the truth or they were very slow at responding.” 

On the cheating tactics used by city and state officials

One of the primary ones is something called pre-flushing.

Before taking a water sample to test for lead, residents were encouraged by city and state officials to run their water faucets for five minutes. That allowed released all the water that was sitting in the system and brought in the “freshest, cleanest water possible,” said Guyette.

“So what they were doing was artificially constructing the most narrow window of time that water would be sitting there absorbing lead,” he continued.

“Pre-flushing is guaranteed to minimize the amount of lead that's going to be found,” said Guyette. “Yet you have agencies throughout the United States that are doing this to deliberately skew low the amount of lead that they are finding, because they do not want to have to incur the cost to replace these old service lines.”

As a result of Flint, the EPA is now sending a clear message that pre-flushing is not acceptable

On the role of journalism and citizen activism

Guyette said journalism is one of our society’s checks and balances. He encourages journalists across the country to look into testing protocols in their cities and towns, “because there could be other places where they are doing what was going on in Flint… looking for lead where they knew it wasn't going to exist, rather than looking for lead where they knew it was present.”

The emergency managers in Flint were not “answerable” to citizens, because they weren’t elected officials.

“You could just see in their interactions at the public meetings, the cold callous disregard they showed toward people,” said Guyette. “Elected officials would never talk that way to their constituents, because if they did they would not be elected very long.”

But residents such as Leanne Walters and others formed coalitions, did research together and created a website where they shared information with one another.

“For all the tragedy, and it's really horrible tragedy beyond words, it's also unbelievably inspirational,” said Guyette.

Guyette read internal EPA memos where an official wrote she was not so sure Flint "is the community we want to go out on a limb for."

“You cannot get away from the racist aspect of this and the class aspect of this—it’s inherent to the story,” said Guyette. “Despite that, these residents refuse to give up. They refused to believe the lie that their water was safe. They kept looking for people of conscious that would help them.

“What they did should be an inspiration to people everywhere to know that no matter what the odds, if you persevere, if you demand that truth be told, if you work to help uncover the truth, you can prevail and that's the real lesson that I hope everyone takes away from the Flint story.”

Note: This post has been updated.

Lessons From Flint, Michigan's Water Crisis
Lessons From Flint, Michigan's Water Crisis