10 Mar 2016: Interview

In Flint Crisis, A New Model
For Environmental Journalism

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter who dug deeper into the Flint water crisis. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains his work as a journalist employed by a Michigan nonprofit and how it could be a model for in-depth, local reporting on the environment.

by cynthia barnett

Last summer, investigative journalist Curt Guyette found himself knocking on doors of families in Flint, Michigan, carrying not only a pen and notebook, but water-testing kits. Residents realized there was something wrong with their drinking water after the city’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched its source to the Flint River in the spring of 2014 to save money. Michigan officials insisted the water was safe. Guyette, the first investigative reporter in the nation hired by an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, broke the story on possible widespread contamination in early July. He then helped organize door-to-door testing for lead and filed Freedom of Information Act requests in search of the truth.

ACLU Michigan
Curt Guyette.
After the dangerously high levels of lead in water—and in Flint children—were exposed, the national media descended, and the public outcry led to the resignations of state and federal environmental officials. Gov. Rick Snyder, who was slow to respond to the catastrophe, is still being attacked for how he handled it and for what critics call his lack of compassion for a predominantly minority, poor community.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Guyette explains how he chased the story, his unique position as a Ford Foundation-funded journalist employed by ACLU Michigan, and whether this approach to journalism could be a model for rescuing local, in-depth reporting on complex environmental and public health issues.

Yale Environment 360: You were hired by ACLU Michigan in 2013 as an investigative reporter covering the emergency management law that put the state in charge of Flint's government. How did water quality emerge as the urgent story to tell?

Curt Guyette: One of the emergency managers appointed by the governor to run Flint made the financially driven decision to switch from the Detroit regional system to the Flint River as the municipal water source. Immediately after the switch, people in Flint began complaining about the quality of their water, saying that it looked bad, smelled bad, tasted bad, and then they began developing physical reactions to it – their hair falling out in clumps, strange rashes that dermatologists couldn't identify and couldn't treat. Then they started learning about bacterial contamination, E.coli. Then, the city and state notified residents that the water for nine months had trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine, which had occurred because they had upped the chlorine levels to deal with the E.coli. People were outraged. They already had been very upset over the quality of the water, but then to learn they were being exposed to high levels of this carcinogen and not told about it, they reacted with justifiable outrage.

e360: How did you get onto the larger story of the lead poisoning?

Water samples showed lead levels two and half times what it takes to be classified as hazardous waste."
Guyette: A filmmaker named Kate Levy and I did a short documentary about the water problems in the year after the changeover, and the connection to emergency management, really taking seriously the concerns being expressed by the residents. One of the people we interviewed said their child had been exposed to high levels of lead. Right around the time that we released the documentary, Miguel Del Toral, a water expert for Region 5 of the EPA, wrote an internal memo raising the very real possibility that there was widespread lead contamination in Flint and that the city and state were conducting tests in a way guaranteed to minimize the amount of lead being found.

e360: This document was leaked to you as a result of the documentary?

Guyette: Correct. Mr. Del Toral, a long-time EPA employee, was concerned that the information in his memo would get watered down and buried by bureaucracy. He gave a copy to this mom he had been working with, LeeAnne Walters, and because of the documentary, she shared it with us, believing that we would tell the truth about what was going on and take it seriously.

e360: What happened to Mr. Del Toral after your story came out?

Guyette: He was told absolutely not to talk to me, but he was also taken off the Flint case and transferred out of there. The MDEQ [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] was told by the EPA that Mr. Del Toral had been "handled." He was muzzled and was taken away as a very vital resource.

Bretty Carlsen/Getty Images
The National Guard distributed bottled water to Flint residents in January.


e360:At this point, you don't have public scientists to provide information, so you reach out to the independent expert, Virginia Tech Engineering Professor Marc Edwards, to begin lead testing in Flint homes. What led you to Edwards?

Guyette: It was Del Toral who connected LeeAnne Walters with Edwards. They did extensive sampling of her home water. Water samples showed lead levels of 13,200 parts per billion, two and a half times what it takes for water to be classified as hazardous waste, and it was those test results that informed Del Toral's memo. The connection with Edwards had been made when I was writing this story based on the memo. I talked a lot with Edwards, who was very, very patient in explaining to me the science of what was going on.

The memo and story got published. Brad Wurfel, director of communications for MDEQ, in an interview with Michigan Radio in response, said, “When it comes to the issue of lead in water, people of Flint should just relax. There is not a widespread problem with lead in Flint's water.”

At that point, we had a he said/she said story with this one scientist within the EPA attempting to blow the whistle, and the state regulators adamantly denying that there was any problem. In order to get beyond the he said/she said, I began talking with Edwards and activists on the ground in Flint representing the Flint Coalition for Clean Water. All of us began working together on a plan to do independent, scientifically-rigorous testing of Flint's water looking for lead.

I saw it as a team effort. There was a unique collaboration between citizen activists, science, and journalism.
To this day, not one thing that I’ve printed has in any way been legitimately discredited."


e360: The independent testing of samples from more than 275 homes found the water unsafe for drinking and cooking despite MDEQ’s assurances. Was that when the traditional news outlets and the public officials began to listen?

Guyette: No. The consistent reaction on the part of the state was to continue to deny that there was a problem. [The MDEQ’s] Wurfel wrote an email to a reporter at the Flint Journal saying about Edwards and his team that they pull rabbits out of their hat wherever they go. He said they came to town irresponsibly fanning political flames, and the people of Flint don't need more of that.

Their approach was to deny there was a problem and attack the truth tellers. They attacked Del Toral, called him a rogue employee. They attacked Edwards, calling in question his ethics.

e360: They attacked you.

Guyette: Within their own emails they did.

e360: Was it a struggle for you to make the transition after spending nearly 20 years at the Detroit Metro Times, to become an investigative reporter for Michigan ACLU?

Guyette: No, not too much, because having come out of the alternative press, it was not a huge leap. It was my personal evolution and my professional evolution as a journalist. Even though we were out there collecting the samples, I didn't think of that as being an activist role.

Two samples of Flint's polluted drinking water.


What I hope I've established is that what matters is the work itself, and whether it stands up to scrutiny or not. To this day, not one thing that I've printed has in any way been legitimately discredited. In fact, as the mainstream [press] came in, all they have done is substantiate and sometimes appropriate my work without giving credit, but that's fine. Getting credit is much less important now. Getting the work out there in front of people is the most important thing at this point.

e360: And preventing the next lead poisoning of a child.

Guyette: This is a tragic story in that for 18 months, the people of Flint – but especially the children of Flint, pregnant moms in Flint – were being exposed to these elevated levels of lead, in some cases unbelievably high levels of lead, without knowing.

It's such a powerful, harmful neurotoxin. It causes the IQ of children to be lowered, learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities.

A pediatrician from Hurley Medical Center in Flint saw our results and took it upon herself to do analysis of lead levels in children before the switch to the river and after. Her name is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, another incredible person.

What her study found was that after the switch to the river, the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled.

In the parts of the city where our tests found the highest levels of lead in the water, her study found the highest levels of lead in the blood of children. In the areas of the city where it was worse, the percentage with elevated levels of lead in their blood almost tripled. But again, the response of the state was to deny there was a problem and to attack.

e360: As the Flint story reveals, water is often intensely local. But community-level journalism has contracted in the U.S. at a critical time for both [water] pollution and scarcity. Some excellent global non-profit platforms have emerged, like Circle of Blue, and regional models like Water Deeply, which covers California’s drought crisis. Is Flint a model for a local nonprofit platform?

Guyette: Yeah. I don't know if you can recreate the model in Flint, given the character of people that came together. It was pretty extraordinary, because there are not many Marc Edwards in the world. Certainly not enough Miguel Del Torals or Hanna-Attishas willing to put themselves out there, put their reputations at risk to do the right thing and the brave thing.

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Five Questions for Robert Bullard
On the Flint Water Crisis and Justice

Five Questions for Robert Bullard On the Flint Water Crisis and Justice
In Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 whose population is 56 percent African American, a state cost-cutting measure to begin drawing drinking water supplies from the Flint River has led to a public health crisis. Yale Environment 360 asked Robert D. Bullard — dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the man widely considered to be the first to fully articulate the concept of environmental justice — five questions about how the situation in Flint reflects on environmental inequality in the United States.
READ MORE


That's part of it, and certainly the role of journalism. Having the skill set to know how to file Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests, because a lot of the compelling aspects of this story came to light using FOIA. Also having the resources, because more and more government is jacking up the cost of FOIAs.

I thought a good idea for a nonprofit would be to have a FOIA expert and get grant money to help citizen groups know how to file FOIAs and pay to get the documents. I think that would be a very practical and useful non-profit model.

e360: Is the ACLU now considering hiring investigative reporters in other states?

Guyette: There was just a recent national ACLU conference, and a lot of questions and interest among people at the other branches to at least look into trying to replicate what we have done.

Getting reporters in different cities where there could be a lead problem to take Flint on the road – if I were to do something else with my life at this point, I would volunteer to head up a project like that. We know how to do it now. We know how to file FOIAs. We know how to engage residents. They can partner with local universities to do the sampling. I think it would be an incredible project.

Watch Curt Guyette's talk at the University of Florida in February below.




POSTED ON 10 Mar 2016 IN Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water Asia Central & South America North America 

POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cynthia Barnett is an environmental journalist and the author of three books on water, including Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic. She teaches environmental journalism at the University of Florida.

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.
READ MORE

Indonesian Coal Mining Boom
Is Leaving Trail of Destruction

Since 2000, Indonesian coal production has increased five-fold to meet growing domestic demand for electricity and feed export markets in Asia. The intensive mining is leading to the clearing of rainforest and the pollution of rivers and rice paddies.
READ MORE

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.
READ MORE

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.
READ MORE

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Interviews


What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

by diane toomey
Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.
READ MORE

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

by diane toomey
Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.
READ MORE

At Ground Zero for Rising Seas,
TV Weatherman Talks Climate

by diane toomey
John Morales is part of a new breed of television weather forecasters seeking to educate viewers on climate change and the threat it poses. In South Florida, where sea level rise is already causing periodic flooding, he has a receptive audience.
READ MORE

Unable to Endure Rising Seas,
Alaskan Villages Stuck in Limbo

by diane toomey
As an advocate for Alaska’s Native communities, Robin Bronen points to a bureaucratic Catch-22 — villages cannot get government support to relocate in the face of climate-induced threats, but they are no longer receiving funds to repair their crumbling infrastructure.
READ MORE

Why CO2 'Air Capture' Could Be
Key to Slowing Global Warming

by richard schiffman
Physicist Klaus Lackner has long advocated deploying devices that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to combat climate change. Now, as emissions keep soaring, Lackner says in a Yale Environment 360 interview that such “air capture” approaches may be our last best hope.
READ MORE

Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

by diane toomey
Donnel Baird has launched a startup that aims to revolutionize how small businesses and nonprofits secure funding for energy efficiency and clean energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about how he plans to bring his vision to dozens of U.S. cities.
READ MORE

From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

by katherine bagley
For climate scientist Kim Cobb, this year’s massive bleaching of coral reefs is providing sobering insights into the impacts of global warming. Yale Environment 360 talked with Cobb about the bleaching events and the push to make reefs more resilient to rising temperatures.
READ MORE

For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate

by katherine bagley
Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.
READ MORE

How Ocean Noise Pollution
Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life

by richard schiffman
Marine scientist Christopher Clark has spent his career listening in on what he calls “the song of life” in the world’s oceans. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains how these marine habitats are under assault from extreme—but preventable—noise pollution.
READ MORE

How to Talk About Clean
Energy With Conservatives

by diane toomey
Angel Garcia, of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is working to persuade Republicans about the need for renewable energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why his group avoids mentioning climate change when it makes its pitch to conservatives
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale