In 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan began complaining that their water tasted bad, and in some cases, was hurting their eyes when they showered. Still, they were told by the city—and state—that the water was safe. It took veteran ACLU investigative reporter Curt Guyette to expose that was not the case: There were actually high levels of lead in the drinking water—a result of the state-appointed emergency manager’s decision to switch the city’s water from the Detroit system to the Flint River in order to save money. The crisis has now spurred a federal investigation of local, state and EPA officials’ mishandling of the crisis. And this week, Kara Holsopple got a chance to talk with Guyette about how he broke the story.
The Allegheny Front: When you look at the field of environmental journalism and health, it’s sometimes difficult to connect health impacts to a specific pollution point or event. But that’s exactly what’s happened in Flint. So how did you investigate that chain of causation?
Curt Guyette: Well, actually, the key factor in Flint didn’t have anything to do with me directly. It had to do with a doctor at Hurley Medical Center. We were involved in doing an independent study of lead in Flint’s water, and [she] took it upon herself to look at lead blood levels in children under five and compared a nine-month period before the switch to the Flint River to a nine-month period after the Flint River. And she was able to show that, after the switch, the percentage of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled. And it only happened in Flint; the rest of the county that Flint is located in, Genesee County, remained on Detroit’s system for water. So they were able to show a direct correlation between the switch to the river and elevated levels of lead in the blood of kids. And that was not my reporting, but it was our previous work to investigate the lead levels in the water that caused that doctor to do that. So it was a bit of a chain reaction.
LISTEN: “The Investigative Reporter Who Broke the Flint Lead Story”
AF: This story has a lot of components of race and class. Can you talk about the role those things played in reporting this story?
CG: One thing for certain is that the school districts and cities in Michigan that have been taken over by emergency managers—taken over by the state—are majority African-American with high poverty rates. Flint is probably about 57 percent African-American with a poverty rate of 40 percent. Detroit, which was also taken over by emergency managers, is 85 percent African-American with a poverty rate around 40 percent as well. So these are African-American cities and school districts and poor cities that are having democracy taken away from them as a result of this emergency manager law. But it’s not only poor African-American cities that are having this infrastructure crisis. The federal government has cut back tremendously on the funding that it gives for water and sewer infrastructure, and as a result, the costs are being placed increasingly on the backs of ratepayers. And water is being put out of the price range of poor people. We saw it in Detroit: Tens of thousands of people the past couple of years have gotten their water cut off simply because they cannot afford the bills. In Flint, they were paying $150 a month—the highest rates in the country—for water they couldn’t drink. You know, Flint is right in the heart of the Great Lakes system, which has 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. You would think that in no place would water be cheaper or cleaner. But these people were poisoned because the state was trying to save some money.
AF: Why did it take so long for other media to pick up on this story and respond to the public outcry about the water problems that Flint was experiencing?
CG: I think there are a number of factors involved there. One is that the government continued to maintain that the water was safe. And, you know, people—even reporters—tend to believe that the government is going to tell them the truth when asked a question. So that’s part of it. I think there also might be a little reluctance or hesitation or trepidation with something this big. When you’re saying that a whole town of 100,000 people is getting lead poisoned because their water is not being treated properly, that’s a pretty huge claim to be making. And people are reluctant to go too far out on a limb with something that huge.
WATCH: The ACLU’s Here’s to Flint Documentary
AF: So what can other cities—especially here in the Rust Belt—learn from what’s happened in Flint?
CG: You know, it’s hard to talk about good things coming out of Flint because the tragedy is so severe and heart-breaking. But definitely one thing that’s happening is a heightened awareness about the potential for lead in people’s water. Michigan is not the only state where the department of environmental quality conducts its water sampling in ways that cause the results to skew low. Someone just told me today that there’s been a significant increase in the number of people asking for the water to be tested for lead here in Pittsburgh. But it’s not enough to have water tested; they need to find out what the protocols are for conducting those tests. Because if they’re doing certain things that a number of states are doing, where loopholes in the law are being exploited, they need to know that because they’re not really getting accurate results if that’s going on.
Even the size of the bottles they use [can make a difference]: The rule is that you’re supposed to put your bottle under the tap and turn the tap on full-speed, because the faster the water is moving, the more likely it is to dislodge lead particles. In Michigan, they were using bottles that were like pop bottles, with a small opening, which would kind of be a natural deterrent to people turning the water on full-speed; whereas, Virginia-Tech, which we worked with to conduct independent tests, had bottles that were more like mayonnaise jars. So there’s a lot of sneaky tactics used by different states to minimize the amount of lead they’re finding. Because if they end up over the federal action level, then there’s a likelihood they’re going to have to start replacing these lead service lines, which is a big cost. And so there is a financial incentive to not find lead.
AF: And on a personal level, how has reporting this story changed you?
CG: It’s had a profound effect on me, just in terms of how I feel about the people of Flint. I don’t live in Flint; I live in the Detroit area, so Flint’s about 70 miles away. I’m not sure I was even in Flint before I started reporting this story. But my feelings for the people of Flint run very deeply. I really love it and feel connected to it. And it’s certainly made me very proud of the ACLU of Michigan—that they had enough foresight to try something new and give me the opportunity.
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan. You can read more of Guyette’s reporting on the Flint crisis here.