Marc Edwards, Virginia Hero

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Marc Edwards. Photo credit: Washington Post

Just when you begin to lose faith in the system, when you think that spendthrift politicians, corporate cronyism and bureaucratic inertia can never be defeated, along comes someone like Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who exposed the lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Mich. Today’s Washington Post describes how he brought the story to light, collecting and testing water samples, assembling a team, battering public officials with Freedom of Information Act requests, and holding government accountable. He spent thousands of dollars of his own money in the process.

A decade previously, Edwards had worked with the Washington Post to demonstrate that corrosion in Washington, D.C.’s pipes had allowed lead to seep into the water supply. He then spent years dogging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until the federal agency conceded the flaws in a 2004 report in which it had concluded that no children had been harmed. “There’s a lot of lessons here for how science can go awry, how bureaucracies can use science to hide the truth,” Edwards told the Post at the time.

Edwards is a hero in Flint. He should be a hero here in Virginia, too, and a model of how citizens can make a difference.

— JAB

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11 responses to “Marc Edwards, Virginia Hero

  1. I just returned from a trip to Michigan to visit my ailing mother. The Flint situation is a mess, with government ineptitude or malfeasance. While I was there I heard an NPR interview with Professor Edwards. His dogged determination made a huge difference in beginning to uncover the facts of the situation. I was glad hear that a Virginian was so willing to help. Not only was the State of Michigan a bad actor here but the EPA apparently really dropped the ball when they should have known better. Unfortunately, many people may be suffering mental and physical health effects as a result. The lead issue affects many more communities than we know about.

  2. Fire all those responsible employees of all the government agencies (state and federal) that should have discovered and solved this problem–but did nothing.
    Use the savings to pay for the cleanup and medical care for those who were hurt.
    What? Are you crazy? Accountability for government employees and agencies.
    We can dream…

  3. Yes, JohnBR. Edwards should be a hero to the EPA also. He went out of his way to bring this to their attention months ago, as the WP article details. And it’s not as if the EPA wasn’t well aware of his doggedness in pursuing the similar lead-leaching situation in Washington, DC just 12 years earlier. It’s absolutely astounding that the EPA didn’t jump all over this based solely on Edwards’ past track record of credibility on this exact same threat to public drinking-water safety, let alone the hard evidence he supplied to the EPA. Instead, after that, after the mayor of Flint asked EPA what the fuss was about, we also learn today from the WP (Joe Davidson’s Federal Diary column) that EPA’s Regional Chief, Susan Hedman, assured the mayor of Flint that “everything was fine”; at the same time senior people within the EPA were being silenced.

    Wow! Obviously heads should roll; this is worse than the VA mess, though it has the same smell of federal bureaucratic incompetence and coverup to it. Susan Hedman, says the WP, has now “resigned.” Why not her boss? How about Congress also demanding that the EPA reimburse the $150,000 Edwards spent this time around on FOIA requests and testing of Flint’s water in his own lab?

  4. THe thing is – there are thousands upon thousands of govt-run waterworks plants in the US – and how many had this problem?

    Perhaps as important – how was that job done differently by govt in Flint than other places?

    When the State decides that local govt is fiscally incapable and irresponsible and takes over – because it’s considered more responsible and competent… well…..

    But the other thing – a govt-funded guy in Va of all places caught the problem – not without some initial abuse from the folks who said there was not a problem…

    Finally – we hear all this talk about how some Universities in Va are located in the “wrong places”. I’d say this kinda of disproves that theory!! You’ve got some significant water experts in Va – out in the boondocks… eh?

    • Flint was a bit of a special situation. For decades they purchased their water from the Detroit water system which comes from Lake Huron and was delivered properly treated and ready to go to the Flint Water Works.

      When the state fiscal commissioner was appointed he wanted to save money and told Detroit that in two years Flint would change water sources when a new plant would be ready. Detroit then raised the water price substantially for those last two years. The state guy said OK we’ll get our water from the Flint River. The river had substantially poorer water quality compared to the Lake Huron water and the local water treatment people didn’t know that with the new water source a special chemical additive (used in many other city water supplies) was needed to prevent the leaching of lead from the 100+ year old lead supply pipes, which exist in many communities throughout the U.S. The state knew what was required as did the EPA because it is a common practice.

      Where it gets murky is that apparently the state guy decided to save $100 a day and did not tell the Flint water people that the additive was needed. And for some time (8-10 months) after Professor Edwards brought it to the attention of the EPA, they kept saying everything was OK. There should be something more than just a quiet resignation involved here. On the face of it, several people in positions of responsibility knew about this and yet did nothing. They should be investigated and appropriately dealt with.

      The Governor of Michigan appointed a special investigator who is a friend of his and a large donor to his campaigns, so there is apprehension in Michigan that this will be whitewashed, especially since Flint has become a shell of its former self after it was abandoned by GM and is filled with what some callously call “useless eaters”.

      • re: they did not know. I guess I would have expected them to test the water for the requirement components and verified that each one fell within stipulated margins -and that would include the aggressiveness of the water.

        that water should never have gone into any distribution mains until that testing had been done and the results verified and signed off by the responsible person.

        you would expect this level of compliance with the regulations at any water plant – I would think.

        • You would think so, but they had never needed to do it for decades because it had always been done for them by the Detroit water suppliers. By this time they were under the jurisdiction of the state and no locals were interested in taking any initiative lest they get into trouble. They waited for the state to tell them what to do and the state Department of Environmental Quality, even though they knew what was necessary, never gave the proper instructions to the Flint officials.

          The reason why is yet to be fully discovered. Who knew and who gave the orders not to do what was obvious and necessary is still unknown. The amazing thing is this involved both state and federal agencies that both had knowledge of what was needed. The EPA had heard from Professor Edwards for months with still no action. Obviously, the conspiracy theorists are running wild with this. A series of oversights or bad luck cannot explain this away. Both state and federal agencies knew what was required, they were warned by a reputable source and still no action was taken for months. I wonder if the truth of this will ever be fully known. Often a mid-level scapegoat is found and the inquiry ends there.

  5. Another prime example of the need for government to focus on executing the basics well, rather than constantly ignoring its performance of fundamental tasks in favor of getting into new, exciting and expensive programs. And people wonder why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – two crazies — are attracting so much attention.

    It’s basic blocking and tackling as my old sandlot football coaches would say.

    • That makes sense, but in this case it appears to be more than just government inefficiency at work here. What frightens people is that it seems that “intent” is involved here. It wasn’t just the usual – people didn’t know what to do or care about it enough to do it – this was a case of people charged with protecting the people who knew what should be done and didn’t do it.

      • Precisely! And think back to the DC water situation in ’03-04 or so: that was a change in water treatment at the Dalecarlia treatment plant to better treat suspended particulates, I seem to recall was the reason, which changed chemicals resulted in the same leaching of lead in old pipes in DC that has been experienced in Flint; and this same guy, Edwards, blew the whistle then, and was ignored, the same as today!

        A lot of folks don’t realize that lead pipes were routinely used, and may still be found in many if not most pre-WWII houses, as service connections between the water main in the street and the homeowner’s meter, as well as in some old gas main connections. This is because a newly-constructed house generally was expected to settle, and the settling can be enough to break cast-iron pipe. The safest alternative was a lead pipe that would bend and stretch as necessary; people didn’t know about the danger of low-level lead exposure. Settling is still a potential problem for pipes through the basement wall today but water service connections today are usually soft copper (and gas connections are plastic). A lot of those old lead connections are still in place today, but kept harmless by water additives that hold a stable coating of lead oxide in place to deter leaching of lead into the water.

  6. well – again – we have thousands of govt-operated water treatment plants across the nation – and how many of them had this problem?

    I don’t think Flint was “unique”. I think they had a failure to follow industry practice – to save money – and I’m pretty sure there are some of those nasty government regulations that were not followed ….

    What this points out to me is that BOTH the private sector AND the govt will try to save money on something – and there is risk in doing that- I’m not advocating that we have gold-plated services by a long shot – but the temptation to save money – needs to be one in which not just one person makes that call AND that the people who DO make the call – are identified and on the record for their decision.

    99% of these kinds of failures end up after the fact – with an investigation trying to identify who knew and who did not and who did something and who did not.

    Folks might recall – that water utilities have had to report results to consumers for some number of years now – another one of those nasty govt regulations….

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe_Drinking_Water_Act

    of course there was the usual fight from the usual cast of characters opposing the Act…

    point is – the act required whoever was in charge of the water system to follow clear rules… and to report test results annually… it’s not like the rules were unclear.

    this is not just a “lapse”… it likely is a criminal act.

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