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24,000 emails in 3 days: How journalists broke the Flint Water Crisis

By: Kathy Johnson, WSU student journalist

Detroit — In 2016, Chad Livengood was covering Governor Rick Snyder’s office for The

Detroit News when rumors of a water crisis in Flint began to swirl around the capital. The

DEQ’s office was inundated with FOIA requests, causing the whole system to “gum up,”

Livengood said during a recent presentation at Wayne State University.

Frustrated by the lack of information coming out of Lansing, Livengood called Jarrod Agen in

the Governor’s office and asked him to release all the information they had on Flint.

“I said, look I’m tired of little pieces of this trickling out and I’m sure you are too, why don’t you

just hand over all the emails right now. Just dump them. And Bill Nowing a contract crisis

communication consultant with the governor’s office called back half an hour later and said

we’re gonna do that.”

Within hours, Livengood said he and a team of nine other staffers at The Detroit News were

locked in a room where they spent the next three days sorting through 24,000 emails.

Livengood said they started reading emails around 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb 9 and most of the team

worked without stopping until the first story went to press for the Friday, Feb 12, 2016 edition.

As the extent of the crisis began to emerge, subpoenas were issued, and agencies statewide were

ordered to comply with all Freedom of Information Act requests. Livengood said the government

began “CYA [cover your ass] document dumps,” where everything that included the word

“Flint” was sent.

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Livengood described one document dump which arrived on a Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. and

contained 100,000 pages, “and as far as I could tell 95,000 pages were nothing but news

clippings that contained the word Flint,” he said.

A 4000 – 5000-page document dump that came via Livengood’s FOIA request to Genesee

County helped change the focus of his reporting on Flint. “We figured out that the governor’s

office was initially only dumping things they wanted to dump,” he said. “There was some

narrative building.”

Livengood said it appeared that the governor’s office was trying to focus attention on emails

showing how EPA and CDC bureaucrats had known about a Legionnaires outbreak in Flint but

done nothing about it.

By comparing the 24,000 emails from Lansing with 4000 emails from Genesee County,

Livengood said the News team finally had an “ah-ha” moment.

They found an email sent on the eve of Governor Snyder’s re-election in 2014 which revealed

his aides knew there was a water issue in Flint.

“This was a more politically damning discovery,” Livengood said. Two weeks later, on Friday,

February 26, 2016, The Detroit News broke a story reporting how the Governor’s office had

known about the water crisis in Flint for two years, and they had done nothing about it.

Livengood said an extensive review of email addresses contained in the document dumps also

revealed that the Governor and his staff had been using private email servers, which opened

another avenue of reporting when those addresses became answerable to FOIA requests.

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Between the Governor’s office and Genesee County, journalists at The Detroit News analyzed

over 28,000 pages in the first few weeks of reporting on the Flint water crisis.

Almost four years later, Livengood said, “we’re still trying to understand it all.”

Chad Livengood is a senior editor at Crain’s Business Detroit. Livengood shared his insider

perspective on the Flint water crisis during a case study panel at the Freedom of Information Act

Conference hosted by Detroit SPJ at Wayne State University on Saturday October 12, 2019.

Images by: Kathy Johnson

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