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Sunshine Week: Could Flint's water crisis help spur FOIA reform?

Protestor holding up a sign that says "Safe Water" at a Flint Water Crisis protest
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Before Flint's water problems were widely known to the public, Snyder administration officials spent a lot of time emailing back and forth about the city and its water. 

We wouldn't know that if the governor hadn't voluntarily released batches of emails. That’s because he and the Legislature are exempt from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

But that could change.

This week, 37 state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle introduced a package of bills that would remove those exemptions. Keep your eye on LORA, the Legislative Open Records Act.

Were it not for the efforts of a tiny group of determined journalists using the limited power of FOIA, people in Flint could still be drinking lead-poisoned water.

Among them is Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan.

Even as state and local officials repeated their mantra that all was well with Flint’s water, Guyette was uncovering the truth.

Guyette tells us he started paying attention to Flint’s water in early 2015, when it was revealed the water contained high levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine.

"It became very, very clear when all those emails were released that the state, their primary response was not to see this as a public health crisis, it was to see it as a PR problem."

Through FOIA, Guyette discovered the EPA began communicating with Michigan about lead levels in Flint’s water and whether the state was using appropriate corrosion controls in February 2015 

“We know that initially the state claimed to have a corrosion control program in place when it really didn’t,” he says.

Guyette also found the city “was not following the law in terms of how they were doing their testing,” explaining that they are required to verify that each home being tested is at a high risk of elevated lead levels.

“I asked them for their documentation showing how they verified that these homes were high-risk homes as the law required, and they did not produce it. They said, 'We did not produce it, because we don’t have the records,'” he says.

He is quick to point out the city was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager at the time.

Guyette tells us this “was by no means a lone effort,” crediting Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and others for helping him understand what was going on in Flint and the science behind it.

Reading over those internal emails and memos, either obtained through FOIA requests or released by the governor’s office, gave Guyette a “sickening” glimpse into the attitude with which the state and the EPA approached the issue.  

“It became very, very clear when all those emails were released that the state's primary response was not to see this as a public health crisis, it was to see it as a [public relations] problem. And that’s just sickening. It is completely sickening,” Guyette says.

The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity places Michigan dead last out of all 50 states in terms of state ethics and transparency laws. Guyette hopes the Flint water crisis will propel Michigan policy-makers to make reforms and push for more transparency and accountability.

“It’s hard to talk about good things coming out of a tragedy like Flint, but I think that, given the attention that’s been on, especially, the exemptions, there could be momentum to try to change those laws and make them better,” Guyette says. “You know, I’m in Pennsylvania talking to people … and I tell them about what’s going on in Michigan, and their jaws just drop at how far behind we are of other places.”

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