How an investigative journalist helped prove a city was being poisoned with its own water

Photo courtesy Curt Guyette

It was not a typical evening of reporting. In early September, Curt Guyette was knocking on unfamiliar doors in Flint, Michigan—not to ask for interviews, but to ask residents to test their water for lead. Local activists were doing the same thing on sidewalks nearby, and in other parts of town. The task: Muster tests from as many ZIP Codes as possible to give a complete picture of what, exactly, was flowing out of the taps in Flint.

Guyette had been following the story of lead in Flint’s water for months, even as officials assured residents and the media that everything was under control. Over the summer, he’d helped produce a mini-documentary about concerns with the water for the ACLU of Michigan, where he works as an investigative reporter. That led to a scoop—a leaked memo from a US Environmental Protection Agency official that explained how Michigan’s process for lead testing in Flint’s water delivered artificially low results.

Now, a researcher from Virginia Tech was conducting an independent evaluation, and Guyette wasn’t just following the story, he was in the middle of it. Initial assessments by the researcher, Marc Edwards, had already found dangerously high levels of lead in the water in many Flint homes—the consequence of a series of questionable government decisions. More tests, taken with the samples collected by Guyette and others, confirmed the problem with the water. Soon, a local doctor was reporting elevated blood-lead levels in Flint children, too, and county officials were declaring a public health emergency.

Finally, in early October, Gov. Rick Snyder announced that the state and other entities would spend $12 million to reconnect Flint to a safer water supply. The switch happened less than a week later, right around the time the state removed its top water quality official and publicly admitted mistakes.

The episode amounts to a tale of startling government failure that created serious public health risks. Calling out that failure took a group effort that included a scientist who lives hundreds of miles away, a collection of private citizens-turned-activists, and Guyette, a veteran reporter who doesn’t even work for a news organization anymore.

“I’ve been doing [journalism] for more than 30 years,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been involved in anything more important.” 

After the end to a long tenure at Metro Times, a Detroit alt-weekly, Guyette signed on to run the ACLU’s Michigan Democracy Watch Project in 2013. His stories are featured in the ACLU’s Democracy Watch blog, and, in an effort to reach more readers, occasionally in Metro Times, The Nation, or other outlets. The Michigan branch is the only ACLU in the country to have an investigative reporter on staff—the position is supported by a Ford Foundation grant—and Guyette has a broad mandate to cover shifts in democratic governance under emergency management, a system in which the governor appoints an official to oversee financial decisions for struggling local jurisdictions.

That mandate led to a focus on Flint, an economically distressed city of about 100,000 people, an hour northwest of Detroit, that has been in and out of emergency management. Flint has also long been connected to the Detroit water system, which uses treated Lake Huron water. Primarily in an effort to save money, the city has made plans to join a new regional water authority. While that is being constructed, the city, while under the supervision of a state-appointed emergency manager, opted to use water from the Flint River, rather than sign a pricey short-term contract with Detroit.

The move drew praise at the time. “Let’s raise our drinking water glasses and cheers to a new direction for the next 40 years,” declared an editorial in the Flint Journal from April 2014.

But complaints about poor water quality and a hike in water rates were immediate; soon after, E.coli was detected. Those concerns drew some media notice, and initial reports of lead and other contaminants popped up, too. The news mostly simmered in the background, though, tamped down by official declarations that the water was fine. 

The leak of the EPA memo over the summer made clear more scrutiny was needed. Then, suddenly, the story broke open in September, after the tests by Edwards’ lab confirmed the presence of lead in the water of scores of Flint homes—the result of corrosive river water interacting with the city’s aging lead pipes, and officials’ failure to treat the water to make it potable.

As the evidence mounted, Michigan Radio and the Detroit Free Press were among the news outlets with the quickest and strongest follow-up reporting, including a damning Freep report on how the state was misinterpreting its own data, putting the pressure on the state to act, and a Freep feature on the doctor who conducted the key blood analysis. The Flint Journal has delivered follow-up coverage, too. (The Journal’s editor and the director of content of MLive, the umbrella site for Advance papers in the state, both declined to comment for this story.) 

But it was Guyette and the ACLU who played key roles in getting the story to this point. 

“What they did [in making the EPA memo public] was critical,” said Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Free Press. “When you look at it now, the memo really laid out all the problems…. Along with Marc Edwards’ data from the lead testing, it provided a counterpoint to what the state was saying and made it very difficult [for officials] to respond.”

Kaffer added that the memo and lead tests gave other reporters an entry point into a convoluted story full of obscure jargon about water treatment. Even when she reached out to experts to help her navigate the wonky details, the political reach of the story prevented many of them from talking with her, even on background. But the information from the ACLU and Edwards “set the ground to move forward and ask questions, for both reporters and regular citizens.”

Along with Edwards, the ACLU also submitted FOIA requests that revealed a troubling indifference among officials about water quality concerns. (“Apparently it’s going to be a thing now,” a spokesperson for a state agency wrote a colleague, when Michigan Radio began following up on Guyette’s inquiries.)

And Guyette was out there, knocking on doors, collecting samples. In a little over two weeks, he and the others distributed 300 lead-testing kits to Flint residents and collected 277 back—an astonishing rate of return. 

“I was really walking a line in my own role as a journalist and activist,” said Guyette, who has continued to cover the fallout himself. “I’m not just observing the story; I’m participating in it. In my mind, I’m just trying to get to the truth.” 

The ACLU is an advocacy group, of course, and Guyette’s role has prompted some familiar skepticism about advocacy journalism. A June email between city officials discussing an interview request by Guyette, obtained via a FOIA request, describes him as “one of the coproducers of the [short film on the water crisis], which somewhat discredits his objectivity.” Another internal email from a state official reads: “I got a weird call from a ‘reporter’ at the ACLU asking about Flint drinking water…”

Guyette said that meant the team knew it needed to make the lead testing “bulletproof,” because “we knew [skeptics] would come after us.” He also emphasized that if the testing found that the city and state were telling the truth about the water, “we’d do a story on that and put people’s minds at ease. Because at this point, there was so much worry and confusion, it’d still be of value.”

“The bottom line is that as important as credibility is to any journalist, it’s even more important when you’re pushing things the way we push them,” Guyette said. “You cannot be wrong, because you’re so easy to discredit as just having an agenda.” 

It turns out that they weren’t wrong. Had they not interceded, poisoned water might still be flowing out of the taps. That’s a big win, but not a complete one: The full consequences of the crisis won’t be known for decades. And there remain questions about who bears responsibility.

“It’s a bittersweet victory, god knows,” Guyette said. “I’m glad we were able to force this change and help keep people from being lead-poisoned. But it’s hard to feel joy knowing the damage that’s already been done.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.