Michigan Democracy Watch Blog

Curt Guyette

Curt Guyette

The Michigan Democracy Watch Project uses investigative journalism to delve into Michigan’s system of emergency management and its effects on open government. The project is headed by Curt Guyette under the umbrella of the ACLU of Michigan.

Stark evidence of how terribly bad things can go when democracy is dismantled can be found in the elevated levels of lead in the children of Flint.



Because of decisions made by an appointed emergency manager, the tragically high costs of trying to balance a budget by switching to an unsafe water source will be borne by kids now forced to struggle with lower IQs, behavioral problems, learning disabilities and a host of other ill effects.



Flint Water and the No-Blame Game

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In last week’s press conference announcing that the city of Flint would finally be allowed to return to Detroit’s water system, Gov. Rick Snyder made it a point to note that placing blame for the lead poisoning of children is not something he intends to do.


He wants to address the current problem, learn what can be done better in the future, and move forward.


Call it the “no-blame” game.


When Gov. Rick Snyder and a clutch of other officials stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Flint on Thursday to announce that the city would soon be returning to the Detroit system for its drinking water, a few important points were either glossed over or missed completely.


The first and most important is this: This decision to abandon using the Flint River did not come about because of what the Gov. Snyder likes to refer to as his “relentless positive action” approach to governance.


Rather, a monumental mistake was made when a state-appointed emergency manager decided to try and save money by switching to the Flint River. And the state and local officials responsible for that – and for the lead poisoning of children that resulted – did everything they could to avoid admitting the full extent of their failure to protect the public.b2ap3_thumbnail_snyder-5.jpg


In the past few weeks, the problem of lead in Flint’s drinking water has quickly gone from being a story largely ignored by the mainstream media to a scandal that’s making headlines nationally.

Faced with overwhelming evidence, state and local officials who adamantly insisted for months that there was no problem have been forced to admit that their unequivocal assurances were completely false.


For that reason, the U.S. EPA needs to quickly respond to last week’s formal petition calling upon the agency to step in and take a greater role in assuring that Flint’s water is safe. Also needed is an investigation by an outside entity with subpoena powers to determine if laws were broken and, if so, who broke them.

One thing is certain: The MDEQ has failed miserably in its obligation to ensure that the public health is being protected. The agency’s consistent denials that a danger existed only served to create a false sense of security, keeping people from taking the actions needed to help limit their exposure to a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage — especially to children.

It was only in July, following the publication of an EPA internal memo sounding the alarm of lead in Flint’s water, that Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, was telling one reporter this: “Let me start here — anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” 

If a small group of citizens, working in conjunction with researchers at Virginia Tech and the ACLU of Michigan, had been willing to swallow that claim, children in Flint would still be getting lead poisoned.

Instead, they combined forces to conduct a comprehensive independent study of their own. When those test results began to be published in late August, proving that the highly corrosive Flint River was causing high levels of lead to leach into the city’s drinking water, Wurfel again went on the attack.

When questioned about Virginia Tech’s study by a reporter from the Flint Journal, Wurfel replied with an email that, in part, claimed:

When I said we were unsure how the Virginia Tech team got its results, that’s not the same as being surprised that they got them. … this group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it is done. … While the state appreciates academic participation in this discussion, offering broad, dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.

When doctors at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint followed up on the Virginia Tech study by doing an analysis of lead blood levels in children, they found that, since an appointed emergency manager made the cost-cutting decision in April 2014 to leave the Detroit system and start using the Flint River as the city’s source of drinking water, the number of children with elevated levels in their blood doubled.

That study both built upon and validated Virginia Tech’s research.

And what was the state’s response to that damning evidence?

Initially, another knee-jerk attempt to deny and discredit.

Wurfel again went on the attack, claiming the water controversy is becoming “near-hysteria.”

“I wouldn’t call them irresponsible. I would call them unfortunate,” Wurfel said of the Hurley study.

By the time the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency last Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder and his team were finally forced to concede the truth: Flint’s water is a danger to its residents, particularly children and pregnant women.

It was a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who made the monumentally disastrous decision to switch to the river in an attempt to balance Flint’s books — at any cost. And it was Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality that oversaw city water tests which — based on the Virginia Tech study — were wildly inaccurate, and, as our investigation found, conducted in a way that seems intentionally designed to minimize the amount of lead detected.

Now the same cast of characters is asking everyone to believe they will get things right this time.

But they have proved they can’t be trusted to ensure the public’s well-being. Which is why the ACLU of Michigan joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council and an array of citizen groups, including the Coalition for Clean Water, to formally petition the U.S. EPA last week to step in and provide greater oversight of Flint’s water treatment measures and testing.

But that alone is not enough.

In Wurfel’s carefully managed press conference last week, when plans for further testing and distribution of water filters were announced by the state, some important questions were either unasked or successfully evaded.

Here are some of them:

• What, exactly, was done before the switch to study the Flint River to determine what effects it would have on the city’s infrastructure? How could they not know how dangerous the river water would be? Was it incompetence or malfeasance?

• Why did the city’s tests, conducted under the eye of the MDEQ, not reveal the same levels of lead found by Virginia Tech? 

• Flint Mayor Dayne Walling says the use of corrosion control chemicals — which could have mitigated the problem — was “interrupted” after the switch. The state said publicly last week that corrosion control — which is sorely needed to help keep lead from pipes leaching into the water — was used. But in documents we’ve obtained, the exact opposite was stated by an MDEQ official. What’s the truth?

It is good that the state, however reluctantly, has finally admitted there is a problem. But it continues to drag its feet in taking the immediate action that would provide the city with the safest water: Switching back to the Detroit system.

Even if that does happen, however, this story won’t be over until everyone responsible for the lead poisoning of Flint’s children is identified and held fully accountable.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government.


In perhaps the most dramatic proof yet of the toxic impact of Flint’s decision to draw municipal water from the Flint River, a new study released today shows that the amount of lead found in the bloodstream of Flint children increased dramatically following the switch from the Detroit water system in 2014. 

According to the study authored by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Pediatric Residency Program Hurley Medical Center, the percentage of children with elevated blood levels – that is, levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl) – increased from 2.1 percent before the switch to 4 percent after the switch to river water.

The results — which are based on blood samples drawn from 1,746 children ages 5 and younger — were even more frightening in Flint neighborhoods where Virginia Tech researchers testing water from nearly 300 homes found the highest levels of lead in the city’s water. Analysis of blood samples from children living in those same high-risk areas showed that the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood jumped from 2.5 percent to 6.3 percent. 

In children who were 15 months old or younger, the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood increased from 1.5 percent to 4.4 percent. 

The study analyzed two groups of samples: Jan. 1 to Sept. 15 2013 (pre-switch) and Jan. 1 to Sept. 15 2015 (post-switch).

Meanwhile, Hanna-Attisha’s study found no statistically significant change over that same time period in the lead levels found in blood drawn from Genesee County children living outside of Flint, whose communities were still receiving drinking water from the Detroit system. 

The study is the first to clearly tie adverse health conditions in residents to the city’s use of water from the Flint River, which Virginia Tech researchers say is five times more corrosive than water from the Detroit system. That high level of corrosion, which is wreaking havoc on the municipal water infrastructure, is directly connected to the high levels of lead found by the VT researchers.

The study by Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor of pediatrics and human development at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, both validates and builds on the recently completed research done by Virginia Tech scientists, who in August worked with residents from the grassroots Coalition for Clean Water and the ACLU of Michigan to collect and analyze lead levels in water from nearly 300 Flint homes.

The results of that study prompted the project’s leader, civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, to visit Flint last week and warn residents at a press conference that the city’s water is not safe to drink or use for cooking unless it is properly filtered.

Among other things, Hanna-Attisha’s study found a clear association between neighborhoods where VT researchers found the highest levels of lead in the water and the highest levels of lead in the blood of children.

The consequences for Flint’s children could be tragic. According to information cited in Hanna-Attisha’s report, there is “vast evidence that supports” an increased likelihood of a decline in IQ for children with blood/lead levels as low as 4 ug/dl.

Lead exposure also increases the likelihood of ADHD, delinquent behaviors and arrests and can lead to a greater chance of negative health effects such as hematologic, cardiovascular, immunologic and endocrine problems. 

The new study has prompted the nonprofit Greater Flint Health Coalition to call for city officials to issue a formal health advisory warning residents about the dangers posed by lead in their drinking water:

“As a coalition of concerned physicians, healthcare professionals and county leaders, we are compelled to inform the public when there is a possible threat to their health so they can take appropriate precautions and actions to protect themselves and their families. At our last meeting and in recent days, we have heard from numerous physicians who shared strong concerns that not enough was being done to alert the public to potential risks of consuming Flint City water that could lead to elevated levels of lead. In order to communicate in a clear and unified voice we thought it best to ask the City of Flint and its Department of Public Works to issue an advisory that lays out steps that should be taken to ensure the safety of all Flint residents. We are currently awaiting the requested advisory from the City, who has committed to working with the local public health department to release the health advisory.”

That statement was issued by Greater Flint Health Coalition CEO Kirk Smith and by state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who chairs the board of Greater Flint Health Coalition.

“The findings released today are alarming,” said Ananich in a written statement. “Our top priority has to be doing everything we can and finding every available resource to ensure access to safe water for Flint residents. I will be leading an effort to raise state, private and philanthropic resources to deliver filters and clean water into the community as quickly as possible.

“We must act with urgency to protect Flint residents, especially those most vulnerable to the negative health impacts of lead: children. Anyone with concerns about their water should visit flintwaterinfo.com and contact their physician or the Genesee County Health Department immediately.” 

Flint officials, including Mayor Dayne Walling, did not return calls seeking comment.

Others, however, were quick to speak out.

Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters, the mother of a child diagnosed with lead poisoning and one of the leaders of the grassroots Coalition for Clean Water, said the study’s findings were sad but not shocking.

“I’m not surprised that these were the findings,” she said. “I’m just thankful for the work that the citizens of Flint have done to keep this problem from being swept under the rug.”

Members of the Coalition for Clean Water have continued to question what, to this point, have been the adamant claims by Flint officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the city’s water is safe.

It is because of the continued work of the coalition that Virginia Tech researchers pushed to receive a National Science Foundation grant that funded their recent study of Flint’s water.

In her report – jointly issued under the auspices of Hurley Children’s Hospital and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine – Hanna-Attisha is calling for the city to limit further exposure to lead. Specifically, the city is being asked to:

• Encourage breast feeding

• Urge adults not to use tap water for infants on formula and pregnant mothers

• Declare a health advisory, which allows for additional resources and public education

• Distribute to residents lead-clearing water filters approved by the National Sanitation Foundation

• Educate the public about necessary precautions


Despite claims by city and state officials that the water supply in Flint is safe to drink, independent expert tests have conclusively shown that the city's residents are being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead.

Given those findings, the question now is: How were the city and state able to produce test results that showed the city was in compliance with federal drinking water standards?

An investigation by the ACLU of Michigan -- conducted in conjunction with the study of Flint's water by researchers at Virginia Tech and the citizen group Coalition for Clean Water -- has found that the city, operating under the oversight of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, took multiple actions that skewed the outcome of its tests to produce favorable results.

Led by civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech researchers studied water samples from 277 homes collected by Flint residents over the past several weeks and found that, unless run through a filter designed to capture toxic heavy metals, the city’s water is unsafe for drinking or use in cooking.

In citing their conclusions, the researchers heavily criticized the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for its contention that the water is safe.



Claims by state and local officials that Flint’s municipal water is safe to drink are being put to the test in a precedent-setting independent study.



So far, those claims are emphatically failing to pass muster.


As the City of Detroit speeds ahead with water shutoffs to residential customers – nearly 6,000 homes lost service in June alone – the situation ahead appears decidedly bleak for poor people throughout southeast Michigan who want continued access to something they can’t live b2ap3_thumbnail_Mike_Duggan_watermeeting.jpgwithout.


City officials frequently tout the fact that, once it’s up and running, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA)—which, as the result of rulings made in Detroit’s bankruptcy, is in the process of taking over management of the water and sewerage infrastructure system serving much of southeast Michigan—will provide at least $4.5 million annually to assist folks struggling to pay their water bills.


The problem is, those funds are tragically inadequate—and it’s not just advocates for the poor who are saying this but the water authority itself.


It took a while for LeeAnne Walters to realize the full impact of the number: 13,200.


Walters—a stay-at home mom with four sons and a husband in the Navy—had seen other numbers reflecting the quality of drinking water at her Flint home that were devastating. But 13,200? She’d never seen anything like this.


The city had tested her water twice in this past March and both times found dangerously high levels of lead—104 parts per billion (ppb) and 397 ppb, respectively.


 In April of last year, life changed for the people of Flint.


As if things weren’t already tough enough for this once thriving manufacturing city located about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, their situation grew unimaginably worse.


In what was hailed as a money-saving measure, the city’s emergency manager presided over a monumental switch, changing the water supply from the Detroit system, which serves most of southeast Michigan, to the Flint River.


Last week, the stories of Flint residents helped bring tears to the eyes of a state representative during a hearing on water affordability and safety issues held at the state Capitol.


Now, those residents are turning to the courts for relief.


As bad as the much-publicized problems in Detroit are, the situation is even worse in Flint, a once-prosperous industrial city of 100,000 residents that is located 70 miles northwest of Detroit. And, in some ways, it is even worse than Highland Park, which faces the possibility that water to the entire city might be shut off because of the more than $20 million in back bills owed to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.


Water Tug of War

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With the city of Detroit poised to shut off water to as many as 25,000 residential customers beginning this week, the philosophical divide remains wide between advocates who want an income-based affordability plan and officials who steadfastly insist that an assistance plan that provides some relief is the only feasible solution.


Here’s the difference: Assistance programs such as the one currently being used in Detroit rely on a pot of money – in this case, primarily charitable contributions – to help as many people as the fund allows try and pay for their water. An affordability plan would set a water rate based on a person’s ability to pay, and wouldn’t exceed a certain percentage of their income.


In the first, only some in need get help, and even that help is often not enough to keep the water flowing. With the latter, no matter what your income, water is priced in a way that keeps it affordable.


Secrets and Slicks

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The possibility that an aging petroleum pipeline like the one owned by Enbridge Energy running beneath the Straits of Mackinac could spill thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Great Lakes ecosystem is indeed a terrifying prospect.


That much is beyond debate.



Detroit School Board members and supporters pray for U.S.

Justice Department intervention outside the McNamara Building.


Already shoved to the sidelines by a state-appointed emergency manager, Detroit’s elected Board of Education could soon find itself even further removed from the job of overseeing how the city’s public school students are educated.




Last August, after Detroit's mass water shutoffs had attracted international condemnation, Mayor Mike Duggan implemented a 10-point plan he said would provide significant help.


"It's taken a lot of effort to get to this point,  but I truly think we're in a situation now where if you want to pay your bill we've made it easier, and if you're truly in need we're going to get you to the right place," Duggan said at the time. "I think for the great majority of people in this town the whole process will get a lot better.”


Detroit Public Schools is facing another cash crisis.


This time, the immediate issue pushing the district to the edge of insolvency is the $85 million it still owes on a $107.8-million state loan it took out last August.  That loan, being repaid in monthly installments, is supposed to be paid off by August. Meeting that obligation, however, has put the district at grave risk, according to information provided to the Board of Education by DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley.


“The District needs either a cash infusion or relief from the [monthly] set aside requirements in order to continue to operate,” reads a document included in an information packet that Earley sent to the board hours before its meeting last Thursday.


DPS Debt and the Road Ahead

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If there was even an inkling of doubt remaining about the abject failure of emergency management to correct the financial and academic problems facing Detroit Public Schools, the newly released Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren report completely nailed shut the coffin on that debate.



Getting Soaked in Highland Park

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It has been years since some Highland Park residents have received a water bill. Now that the tab has finally arrived, they’re left wondering how they’ll ever be able to come up with the thousands of dollars they city now says they owe.


Highland Park resident Evan Morales (above) says that when he attempted to verify the accuracy of a $4,400 water bill, he was told by the city that it couldn't provide him with accurate information.

 Emma Fogle pulled a small stack of past water bills from an envelope and laid them out on a table in the living room of her Highland Park home.


The bills are supposed to have arrived quarterly, but Fogle, a widowed retiree who lives alone, has been billed only four times since early 2011. There’s one bill for a three-month period, beginning in April 2011, for $148.82. The next bill is for a 17-month period starting in October 2011. That, too, is for $148.82.


Detroit Shutoff Spin Cycle

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In has been a dizzying few weeks in terms of the spin Detroit officials are trying to put on the upcoming resumption of mass water shutoffs for residential customers, a practice that last year resulted in multiple arrests of activists trying to block shutoff crews from hitting the streets, a protest that featured about 2,000 people marching down Woodward Avenue, and condemnation from the United Nations.


To recap:




The question isn’t if the city of Detroit is going to again start ramping up water shutoffs to residential customers.


That’s definitely going to happen.