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Flint's Water Crisis and the Unique Role of the Reporter Who Helped Uncover It

With the last Republican and Democratic debates both held in Michigan (Detroit and Flint, respectively), the Flint water crisis continues to command the national stage. But long before the public health emergency became a presidential campaign issue, Curt Guyette, an investigative journalist for the ACLU of Michigan, was one of the first people to help prove that the city’s drinking water was poisoned.

Hired by the Michigan ACLU in 2013 with a grant from the Ford Foundation, Guyette initially set out to investigate and write about the state’s emergency management law, which allows the governor to appoint emergency managers to run cities and counties in severe financial distress. On this week’s podcast, Guyette tells ProPublica senior reporter Abrahm Lustgarten how his role as a public watchdog helped discover lead-contaminated water in Flint, his unique position as a reporter for an advocacy organization, and the information he’s still looking for to carry the story of Flint forward.

Reuters/Jim Young

Highlights from their conversation:

  • The flippant manner of one of Flint’s emergency managers, regarding the disclosure of TTHM (a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine) in the water, made Guyette suspect there was more to the story.
    Guyette: The tone of his voice was so callous, and so dismissive – and certainly not the tone of any public official that is in office because of constituents voting them there. He had no obligation to the people of Flint. He had no actual accountability to the people of Flint, so he could treat them however he wanted. That really was a crystallizing moment for me.

  • The effort to collect independent water samples and test for lead, with the help of a Virginia Tech researcher, was fueled by the community in Flint.
    Guyette: The thing that needs to be emphasized is how much this was driven by people in the community. It wasn't because of the media that there were 277 [water sampling kits] collected. It was because the people of Flint that we were working with wanted to. … They were absolutely driven to have this be as scientifically valid a test as possible, to make it bullet-proof, because we knew that we were going to get criticized, and we didn't want to give any legitimate openings to that criticism. They were scrupulous in how they were conducting this effort, and relentless in getting out there.

  • The extent of Gov. Rick Snyder’s role in switching Flint’s water source remains unclear.
    Guyette: The former director of public works for the city of Flint said that the decision to switch [to the Flint River as the city’s water source] came out of the governor's office. When I asked the governor's spokeswoman about that, she wouldn't give me a straight answer to that question. It's still out there hanging, whether the governor's office was actually directly involved in making the decision – this fateful decision, this catastrophic decision – to switch to the river. That's something else that I'm trying to get to the bottom of.

  • Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, follow Curt Guyette’s reporting and listen to How Did the Flint Water Crisis Happen?

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