By Jessica Federkeil, Point Park News Service:
Curt Guyette, The Michigan Press Association’s “Journalist of the Year,” says that the Flint Michigan water crisis was the most important story of his 30-year journalism career.
“It’s not the national attention that’s important to me,” Guyette, 59, an investigative reporter with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said. “It’s the fact that the people of Flint were able to learn that they were being exposed to lead in their drinking water.”
Guyette will discuss his battle to expose the dangerous drinking water in Flint at Point Park University on Tuesday, March 15. The event will take place from 7-9 p.m. in the GRW Auditorium at University Center 414 Wood St. The event is free and open to the public but registration is required (Registration https://www.eventbrite.com/e/from-flint-to-your-faucet-tickets-21530776131).
“In this case we have an environmental journalist who is following the rules of journalism, but also doing good,” Thomas Baggerman, faculty chair of Point Park’s School of Communication, said. “I think that’s what a lot of our students and journalists want is the ability to have their work make change.”
The event, “From Flint to Your Faucet,” will serve as the kick-off for Point Park’s environmental journalism major.
“We looked around at environmental reporting and the Flint crisis is the story right now,” Baggerman said. “Curt is at the center of that story. It was a no-brainer. He was the obvious choice at this moment in time.”
The new environmental journalism major will create a balance between the worlds of science and journalism, Baggerman said.
“We are trying to strike a blend between the science of environment and the craft of journalism,” Baggerman said. “The major itself has been designed in partnership with the natural sciences and engineering technology department, so it’s got good science as well as good journalism.”
Guyette plans to cover his involvement in the Flint crisis, and the future of journalists in his presentation.
“I got involved in the Flint, Michigan, case because I was hired by the ACLU of Michigan to write about issues involving Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, which allows the state to take over financially struggling areas,” Guyette said. “Locally elected officials virtually loose all of their authority.”
With Flint under emergency management, officials sought to save money by using water from the Flint River as the municipal water for the city of 100,000 people. The majority of those people are African American, with 40 percent of the population living in poverty.
“There were issues with the water immediately following the switch,” Guyette said. “Things didn’t improve, and physical ailments began. People’s hair began to fall out in clumps, strange rashes developed.”
In June 2015, Guyette and a filmmaker made a short documentary about the problems people were experiencing and how it connected to the emergency management.
“Right about the time the documentary was released, an employee for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Miguel Del Toral, wrote an internal memo talking about the potential for widespread lead contamination of Flint’s water,” Guyette said. “Up to that point, the attention was all on other problems associated with the river water.”
The state denied that there was a problem, Guyette said. In order to find out for sure whether there was a widespread problem of lead contamination, or if the state was right and there was no problem, Guyette joined in on an independent study.
“The way things came together I was helping to conduct an independent study. That’s not something a typical mainstream journalist would do,” Guyette said. “They are there to observe and not participate, but I saw it as an extension of my investigation into getting to the truth about what was in the water.”
Guyette said that the analysis found the lead levels were much higher than the city and state claimed. The levels of lead were so elevated that they put the city of Flint out of compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Given all the findings, the governor of Michigan allowed the city to go back to the Detroit water system.
“I was just part of a group of people that were trying to tell the truth about this issue,” Guyette said. “The fact we were able to expose the problem and keep more people from being lead-poisoned is what makes it such an important thing to be a part of.”
The damage created by the lead is irreversible, Guyette said.
“Its tragic, but the residents of Flint fought back, and that was an inspiring thing to be a part of,” Guyette said.
The Flint crisis created a widespread consciousness among people about the quality of drinking water everywhere.
“The Flint case raises awareness that there can be an issue with your water. It makes people ask questions,” Kathy Knauer, executive producer with The Allegheny Front, said. “Immediately it creates concern from citizens about the quality of their water. The requests to look and test for lead in water supplies has increased.”
Knauer will be a part of a panel discussion at the event. She will be joined by Brentin Mock of The Atlantic’s Citylab.com, Myron Arnowitt of Clean Water Action and Guyette.
“We want the panel portion of the event to be very interactive: See more ideas, and more perspectives,” Baggerman said. “We want people to get engaged.”
The panel will cover topics such as the possible environmental hazards that threaten drinking water everywhere.
“We (The Allegheny Front) try to show all sides of the issues,” Knauer said. “I hope the panel can help make people aware of these environmental issues, and make them care.”
Water will be at the center of environmental journalism’s future,” Guyette said.
“Environmental journalism, especially focused on water, is going to become vital in the future,” Guyette said. “There is going to be lots and lots of issues involving water as the effects of climate change continue to be felt. Water issues are going to come more to the forefront. That kind of journalism is going to be more important than ever.”
Guyette, who grew up in Montoursville, Pa., does have a Pittsburgh connection. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1980 with a degree in English writing. Three years later in 1983 he began his journalism career.
“I lived in Point Breeze,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in Pittsburgh very much. I plan on visiting a few of my college friends. I look forward to spending a few days in the city.”
“From Flint to Your Faucet” is presented by The Heinz Endowments and the Point Park News Service. The event is also co-sponsored by the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and the Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh.
“I hope this event creates a greater knowledge of the power of journalism to really make change,” Baggerman said, “and also serves as a reinforcement in the importance of paying attention to the environment.”