How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen?

Cynthia Gordy, How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen? ProPublica, 25 January 2016. “The water crisis in Flint, Michigan – in which the city’s drinking water became contaminated with lead, bacteria and other pollutants – has come to national attention in recent weeks. President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up $5 million in federal aid, but Flint’s water problems have been unfolding for almost two years. Ron Fonger, reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive, has been writing about the water contamination since 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as its water source. From covering city council meetings and town hall forums, where almost immediately residents complained about discolored, tainted water, he has had a front-row seat to the crisis. On this week’s podcast, Fonger speaks with ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg about what caused the problem, who dropped the ball, and what happens next.”

Other resources:

Anna Clark, How an investigative journalist helped prove a city was being poisoned with its own water. Columbia Journalism Review, 3 November 2015. “It was not a typical evening of reporting. In early September [2015], 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 minidocumentary 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 [Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha] 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….

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.

Curt Guyette‘s investigative reporting is featured in the ACLU’s Democracy Watch blog.

Curt Guyette runs the ACLU’s Michigan Democracy Watch Project and Blog.

Democracy Now!‘s coverage of the Flint Water Crisis.

Curt Guyette, In Flint, Michigan, Overpriced Water is Causing People’s Skin to Erupt in Rashes and Hair to Fall Out. The Nation, 16 July 2015.

Evan Osnos, The Crisis in Flint Goes Deeper Than the Water. The New Yorker, 20 January 2016. “…[U]unravelling what went wrong in Flint will probably require more than the release of e-mails and a prime-time apologia. The headwaters of Flint’s crisis are not located in the realm of technical errors; rather, there are harder questions about governance and accountability in some of America’s most vulnerable places. Who controls policy and why? How does the public check those who govern in its name?”

Amy Davidson, The Contempt That Poisoned Flint’s Water. The New Yorker, 22 January 2016. “Someone is to blame. When the state redid the tests, under a more watchful public eye, Flint failed; President Obama has declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, with the National Guard bringing in bottled water. The city has switched back to Detroit water, but that doesn’t solve the problem of the pipes leaching lead. What may lie at the heart of the tragedy, though, appears to have been a certain contempt. It was as if state officials thought that it was all a cultural problem, poor people being frivolous instead of drinking water that had long been, as one memo put it, “perfectly fine.” Really, what did they expect?”

Stephen Rodrick, Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan? Rolling Stone, 22 January 2016. “A writer returns home to find a toxic disaster, giant government failure and countless children exposed to lead.”

Paul Krugman, Michigan’s Great Stink. The New York Times, 25 January 2016. “What we know so far is that in 2014 the city’s emergency manager — appointed by Rick Snyder, the state’s Republican governor — decided to switch to an unsafe water source, with lead contamination and more, in order to save money. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that state officials knew that they were damaging public health, putting children in particular at risk, even as they stonewalled both residents and health experts…. What we see in Flint is an all too typically American situation of (literally) poisonous interaction between ideology and race, in which small-government extremists are empowered by the sense of too many voters that good government is simply a giveaway to Those People.”

Anna Maria Barry-Jester, What Went Wrong in Flint. FiveThirtyEight, 26 January 2016. “Jackie [Pemberton] has lived in Flint [Michigan] for much of the past 48 years, and for many of those, she owned a drain-cleaning business that counted several industrial factories as clients. “I saw what they put down those drains,” she told me, shaking her shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair in disgust. So when the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the murky waters that ran through Flint in April of 2014, she refused to drink it. The idea of it made her ill, she said, thinking about all the industrial chemicals, sewage and road salt that had made their way into the river over the years. John [Jackie’s husband], however, keeps an old soda bottle filled with water by his side whenever he’s home, and he filled it with tap water frequently. Mindful of her limited budget as a retiree, Jackie gave in after six or eight weeks and started drinking the water as well.

By late summer, they both started having stomach problems, losing hair and developing rashes, as did several of their children and grandchildren who either lived elsewhere in the city or periodically came to stay with them. In August, E. coli was found in the city’s water, forcing Flint to issue multiple advisories to residents to boil the water before use. By October, the Pembertons had become regulars at City Council meetings along with a group of other residents concerned about water that smelled of sulfur and chlorine, often came out of the tap tinted the color of urine or rust, and appeared to be causing a long list of health concerns.

“I drank the water for eight or nine months,” John said. “In the poor parts of town, those people drank it for one and a half years. Some still are.”

Today, we know that those health concerns include poisoning from a well-understood neurotoxin: lead. That realization has led to international outrage, protests from Flint residents, and the resignation of several federal, state and local employees, though not as many as some Flint residents would like. More than a year after residents started sounding alarm bells, it’s now clear that employees at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality collected insufficient data and ignored the warning signs visible in what they did collect. In the process, they allowed the residents of Flint to be poisoned….”

Margaret Sullivan, Should The Times Have Been a Tougher Watchdog in Flint? The New York Times, 27 January 2015. “My take:…. I understand the argument that The Times — which covers the whole nation and the globe — can’t be responsible for investigating every local problem. With only a few Midwestern reporters, pulled in many directions, editors must make tough decisions about how to spend their time and energy.

The counterargument is this: Imagine if The Times really had taken on the Flint outrage with energy and persistence many months ago. With its powerful pulpit and reach, The Times could have held public officials accountable and prevented human suffering. That’s what journalistic watchdogs are supposed to do. As traditional local investigative reporting withers, The Times’s role becomes ever more important.

Yes, that takes journalistic resources. Investigative reporting is notoriously time-consuming. But are such resources really unavailable?

After all, enough Times firepower somehow has been found to document Hillary Clinton’s every sneeze, Donald Trump’s latest bombast, and Marco Rubio’s shiny boots. There seem to be plenty of Times resources for such hit-seeking missives as “breadfacing” or the Magazine’s thorough exploration of buffalo plaid and “lumbersexuals.” And staff was available to produce this week’s dare-you-not-to-click video on the rising social movement known as “Free the Nipple.”

Isn’t it a matter of choosing how to deploy the 1,300 members of the newsroom staff? Call it a matter of priorities. Given all that’s happened, especially on issues involving race, maybe it’s time to beef up that talented Midwest staff.

If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the “trending” list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”