GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—ACLU of Michigan investigative reporter Curt Guyette has been named Michigan Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association for his groundbreaking coverage of toxic contamination of the Flint water supply, a public-health disaster that exposed the city of 100,000 people to lead poisoning for almost two years even as government officials insisted the water was safe.
“This represents a victory for non-profit journalism and a reminder that public service remains the highest calling of a free press,” Guyette said yesterday shortly after receiving the award, which the MPA first began presenting last year. “We cannot overemphasize, though, that this story stemmed from the relentless determination of the citizens of Flint to find out the truth about what was in their water. This story would never have emerged were it not for the tireless work of the Flint community.”
The ACLU of Michigan launched the Threats to Democracy Project, which Guyette has led since 2014. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the project’s singular goal is to investigate and report on the emergency manager law and determine the impact on affected communities and governmental transparency. This assignment took Guyette to Flint, where an emergency manager, in a cost-cutting measure, decided to stop buying water from the Detroit system and begin using the polluted and dangerously corrosive Flint River as the municipal water source.
Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, praised Guyette’s efforts as indispensable to government transparency.
"We are so honored that the Michigan Press Association has recognized Curt's early work in exposing the lead poisoning in Flint,” Moss said. “Investigative journalists are a rare and vital breed and essential to open government and our democracy."
The Ford Foundation, which provides a grant that funds Guyette’s reporting on government openness for the ACLU, hailed the reporter for bringing attention not only to the water crisis but to the function of democracy in Michigan—where Flint and other cash-strapped cities have seen their elected officials replaced by state-appointed emergency managers answerable only to the governor.
"Accountability and transparency are imperatives in any democracy. Fulfilling this promise in full requires us to bring sunlight where there is none," said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. "Curt's investigative work in Flint has started a national conversation about what citizens deserve from their government, and we honor his perseverance in telling the truth and bringing justice to a community dealing with so many forms of inequality."
Flint residents began complaining about the water quality after the city, under the control of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, severed Flint’s ties to the world-class Detroit water system and forced the city to start drawing its municipal water from the Flint River in April 2014 without adding necessary corrosion controls.
The river water proved too corrosive for the city’s aging infrastructure and began leaching lead particles from old pipes into the city’s water supply. Flint residents soon began to experience physical ailments such as hair loss and skin rashes.
While the city and state were still insisting that the city’s analyses of the water supply showed the water to be safe, Guyette began to uncover evidence to the contrary. After a draft EPA memo was given to Guyette exclusively by a resident, Guyette became the first to break news that water tests conducted by an independent expert, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, showed that the water quality in one Flint family’s home was so contaminated that it met federal qualifications for toxic waste.
Guyette and the ACLU of Michigan then joined with a coalition of Flint residents, Edwards and his team to collect nearly 300 water samples from homes throughout the city. As Guyette reported, Edwards’ tests proved that the lead contamination in Flint was severe and potentially widespread, posing an especially significant threat to the city’s children.
Combing through reams of public documents, Guyette also broke news of flaws in the city’s testing protocols, which produced misleading results that were reported to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Moreover, Guyette’s efforts also raised concerns about the MDEQ’s oversight of the water tests and the US Environmental Protection Agency ‘s response to the burgeoning crisis.
Although the state continued to refute Edwards’ tests and Guyette’s reporting , a medical report released in the fall showed a dramatic increase in blood-lead levels in Flint children following the water-supply switch. After the report was released, Gov. Snyder said last October that he would allow Flint to return to the Detroit system.
In addition, the spokespersons for both the governor and the Michigan Department of Environmental quality have resigned. The regional head of the EPA also stepped down.
After Flint mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency for her city last November, Gov. Snyder did the same the following month.
Buoyed by Guyette’s reporting, the ACLU of Michigan, the National Resources Defense Council and a coalition of Flint clergy and citizens on Wednesday announced that they had filed a lawsuit against the City of Flint and the state for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
In the meantime, Guyette continues to report on the Flint water crisis and the resulting political fallout.