In Flint, Mich., there is a famous block of concrete that for decades has served as a community message board. Like an old-school Facebook feed, residents use it to post personal news, images, upcoming events and commentary in sprawling graffiti.
This week, several residents went to “The Block” (or “The Rock,” depending on whom you ask) with a message. In big, black capital letters they painted: “YOU WANT OUR TRUST?? WE WANT VA Tech!!!” Underneath they wrote “PSI” and circled it in red with a line through it. It stands for Professional Service Industries Inc., the independent business the city had wanted to hire to test its water for contamination, and which the residents don’t trust.
They want Marc Edwards.
And now, they’re getting him.
On Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced that he was appointing Edwards to the newly created “Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee,” tasked with finding a long-term strategy to address the water crisis. The 17-person team of experts will have three years to report their recommendations.
Edwards is the environmental engineering professor from Virginia Tech who once led, almost entirely on his own, a crusade against the federal government’s failure to protect residents of Washington from lead in the city’s water. And he won.
It was Edwards, 51, who more than a decade earlier proved, along with an investigation by The Washington Post, that corrosion in the nation’s capital’s pipes had caused lead to seep into the water supply and pass through kitchen faucets and shower heads. After helping to expose that water crisis in 2004, he spent six years challenging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to admit they weren’t being honest about the extent of the damage the lead had on children.
He burned through thousands of dollars of his own money, as well as $500,000 from a MacArthur Foundation genius grant he won in 2008, to take on the federal government. He was harassed, lampooned, and threatened. He lost friends.
Then, in 2010, he was vindicated when it was proven that the CDC had lied to the public in a misleading report, which falsely claimed lead levels in the water had not posed a health risk to D.C. residents.
“I’m obsessed with what happened in Washington, D.C.,” Edwards said in an interview last week. “Since 2005 through the present day, I’ve been trying to make sure another D.C. wouldn’t happen.”
And then his phone rang in April 2015. It was a woman named Leeanne Walters, a Flint, Mich., stay-at-home mother who was getting nowhere convincing state and local officials that there was something seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap. Her family’s hair was thinning. Her son’s skin was red and irritated. They told her the water was perfectly safe. And even months later, when it had been determined there were high traces of lead in her water, the officials shrugged it off as an isolated problem.
Desperately, she called Edwards, whom she had read about online. Over the phone, he walked her through how to take her own water samples. The next day she sent them FedEx to Edwards to test. It was the worst lead levels he had ever seen.
“When we saw that my heart skipped a couple of beats,” he said. “The last thing I needed in my life was another confrontation with government agencies. But it was us or nobody.”
He shared his findings with the Environmental Protection Agency. He hoped the system would work this time. But in July, a high level EPA official ignored it and told the mayor of Flint everything was fine. The mayor famously went on television and drank a glass of the city’s water to prove that all was well.
Edwards was furious. It felt like history repeating itself. So he formed a team of researchers at Virginia Tech, to, as he puts it, “go all in for Flint.”
He collected hundreds more water samples, providing his expertise and funding. He set up a website to update the public on his findings and hold the government accountable. As he did in D.C., he became investigative reporter, activist and scientist.
He filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents and emails of state and city officials to find out how much they knew and what they could be covering up. Turns out they knew a lot and did nothing.
“We just enabled them to really get to the truth,” he said. “We couldn’t sit by and let another D.C. unfold before our eyes.”
He is again largely funding this effort out of his own pocket. He received a small $33,000 emergency grant from the National Science Foundation, but he has estimated that he’s spent another almost $150,000. There is a GoFundMe page set up to raise money to offset some costs. The other night during a Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech basketball game, the Fighting Irish presented their opponents with a $2,000 check for its Flint water work.
Since Edwards and his team intervened, the world has taken notice. They published all the documents from the FOIA requests, which showed just how badly the government had betrayed the people of Flint.
It’s caused “a crisis in confidence in government,” he said.
Walters, who leads a group of residents who call themselves the “Water Warriors,” said the mistrust is so deep that they won’t let the city’s chosen company come test their water. They only want Edward’s team.
“He was critical, he showed this problem was all throughout the city and not at one person’s house,” Walters said. “I don’t think this fight would be where it was if it wasn’t for Marc.”
Edwards is a father of two teenagers. When he first started exposing the perils of lead water, his kids were two and four. He teaches a course on ethics and heroism at Virginia Tech. He tells his students that everyone has it in them to be heroic.
“I feel like I’m doing the job I was born to do,” he said. “I get up every day with such a sense of purpose I wish everyone could experience something like that once in their life.”
His colleagues in the field describe his passion and commitment. David Dzombak, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, met Edwards when he was a graduate student in 1988. He recalled Edwards speaking at a conference in 2002 warning other scientists to take seriously the threat of decaying water infrastructure. Even if it wasn’t the hottest research topic of the moment, he told them it was their obligation as civil engineers to protect the public.
“I remember it vividly,” Dzombak said. “He challenged his colleagues to talk about their priorities.”
Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University and also an expert in lead toxicity, said Edwards not only studies the impact of lead in water, but he makes his testing available to communities in need, like he did in Flint.
“What I think he does so beautifully is he fills a void that has been neglected,” Lanphear said. “He’s got passion and persistence. He’s a bulldog. He’s taken this problem on and he’s going to help fix it. There’s an arrogance in the best sense of the word. There’s no question he will help force us to deal with it.”
The work is far from over. Edwards sees his role as continuing to hold the government accountable to the residents of Flint. He’ll share his scientific knowledge and continue to advocate for better civil servants.
“I didn’t get in this field to stand by and let science be used to poison little kids,” Edwards said. “I can’t live in a world where that happens. I won’t live in that world.”
This post, originally published Jan. 26, has been updated.
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