How the Flint Water Story Was Uncovered
ACLU and Michigan Radio shed light on government accountability dodges
In something rarely seen in politics, a public official made a plea in a statewide newspaper hoping to exonerate himself from a growing crisis. In October 2015, Darnell Earley, who had been the emergency manager for Flint from September 2013 until January 2015, made his nearly 600-word plea in The Detroit News.
Earley said he wasn’t at fault for the city of Flint’s decision to take water from the Flint River, which wasn't properly treated and was more prone to leach lead from pipes. He pointed the finger instead at the decision by the Detroit Water and Sewer Department in April 2014 to terminate its contract to supply Flint with water, which started a chain of events.
Curt Guyette, a reporter at the ACLU, didn’t buy it. He had emails from Earley that were acquired in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Dated March 7, 2014, these show Earley turning down an offer from the Detroit department to continue providing water to Flint.
The ACLU reported that Earley wrote: “The City of Flint has actively pursued using the Flint River as a temporary water source." He added, “We expect the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water.”
The Flint water debacle has mushroomed into a national story with presidential candidates stumping on how the situation has been mishandled.
Joe Lehman, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential, has urged both a thorough investigation into the failures of public officials and practical responses to ongoing human needs.
"The most important thing now is reestablishing a safe water supply. The mother who can’t even give her child a drink from the tap probably doesn’t care what level of government broke down or if it’s a breakdown at every level," Lehman said. "As more facts surface, exactly what went wrong, when, and by whom, will become clear."
Unwrapping how it happened that Flint residents were drinking poisoned water has not been an easy task for Michigan reporters and news organizations. They have repeatedly highlighted public officials’ misstatements and attempts to cover up the crisis.
“This has been piecemeal and has come out bit by bit by bit,” said Vincent Duffy, the news director at Michigan Radio and the leader in reporting on the crisis. “The role that the media has played here is to keep asking questions. Keep asking, ‘Why is this going on?’”
Duffy said Michigan Radio worked with Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who had uncovered damning emails from Gov. Rick Snyder’s then-chief of staff Dennis Muchmore.
Michigan Radio reported that Muchmore had stated in a July 2015 email, “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightly so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the DEQ samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”
Duffy said he has a team of four reporters involved in Michigan Radio’s continuing coverage of the issue. He has also said that his newsroom was not quite sure how big a story the story would become, but got the first hint in July 2015. That’s when Michigan Radio reported on a leaked internal memo from the EPA – a story based on reporting by the ACLU’s Guyette.
“We thought, ‘If this is right, this could really be a big problem for the city and the state,’” Duffy said.
The Michigan Radio story then quoted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman.
“Let me start here — anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” said Brad Wurfel, the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Wurfel resigned in December 2015. MDEQ Director Dan Wyant also resigned that month.
And there are growing calls for Snyder to resign.
“Is this the biggest story we’ve ever covered?” Duffy said. “That remains to be seen.”
The ACLU's Guyette said it has been fascinating to watch how the story has played out.
"After we published the leaked EPA memo in July, Michigan Radio’s role in quickly realizing its potential importance, and pushing the story forward, was pivotal," Guyette said in an email. "It took a while for the issue to gain real traction, but both they and us kept pounding away at it until the scandal finally broke out in a big way, and then kept growing to the point where it is now."
"It’s important to recognize that nonprofit journalism and the use of new media played a major role in breaking this story, but no one should lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, it was a small group of committed Flint residents who refused to believe the government’s lies that there water was safe, and who wouldn’t rest until the truth was exposed, is the bedrock upon which this story has been built," Guyette added.
Editor's note: The article was changed to clarify that the lead poisioning came from pipes, not the Flint River, and to add comments from ACLU reporter Curt Guyette.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.