Aqua Man

Marc Edwards helped expose dangerous amounts of lead in the water in Flint and D.C. Now, some of the activists he worked with have turned against him.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards in a water-testing lab at the university. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)
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LeeAnne Walters’s four children were breaking out in rashes in 2014. Her teenage son became so weak he could no longer carry his book bag or walk up the stairs. One of her toddler-aged twins continued to miss developmental milestones. And her own hair started falling out, and has yet to fully grow back. Walters suspected the water in her Flint, Mich., home could be to blame.

In 2015, she tested it and discovered dangerous chemicals, including elevated lead levels. But when she sent her findings to government officials, they insisted publicly that the water was safe, even though they had already issued multiple water-boil advisories because of possible contamination with harmful bacteria. So, she turned to Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who in 2004 had helped alert D.C.-area residents that their drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead. He slept on Walters’s couch in Flint so he could test the water in the middle of the night, when Edwards says water quality is at its worst. He and his team relied on an emergency grant, but, before the grant kicked in, he committed to spending nearly $150,000 of his discretionary research funds and personal money.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards in a water-testing lab at the university. (Jay Westcott for The Washington Post)

Walters was with Edwards that September as he announced to a group of reporters and residents in front of Flint City Hall that the lead levels in thousands of homes were perilous, exceeding safety standards set by the World Health Organization. The water problems traced back to 2014, when the government had switched the cash-strapped city’s water source from treated water in Detroit to the cheaper Flint River. After months of denying there was a problem, state and federal officials said in October 2015 that they would restore Detroit as Flint’s water source. “We wouldn’t be where we are now in Flint without Marc,” Walters told me.

Three years later, however, Edwards found himself staring at a letter addressed to the “Scientific and Engineering Communities” that was posted on a site called FlintComplaints.com. It read, in part, “Residents of Flint request you tell us where we can file a formal complaint against the behavior, since January 2016, of Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. … Many of these residents feel that Mr. Edwards’ drama, changes in stance, and attacks on residents and researchers have ended up taking Flint residents’ voice away and giving it to Mr. Edwards. This has allowed Mr. Edwards to make Flint’s Water Crisis about himself and not the people.”

The letter, which was posted in May, had, by January, more than 90 names printed at the bottom — mostly Flint residents, but also two Washington activists who had worked with Edwards closely during the District’s lead crisis. “It hurt,” he says. “If the statements were true, I would have signed the letter myself.” Clearly, a betrayal had occurred. The question was, who betrayed whom?

Problems with the water in Flint, Mich., trace back to 2014, when the government began using the Flint River as a water source instead of treated water in Detroit. The state eventually had to provide residents with bottled water. (Photos by Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
Problems with the water in Flint, Mich., trace back to 2014, when the government began using the Flint River as a water source instead of treated water in Detroit. The state eventually had to provide residents with bottled water. (Photos by Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

The issue of whether scientists should engage in activism has become more urgent in the Trump era. For decades, scientists have argued their work should be a nonpartisan affair. It’s a norm so deeply rooted that even scientists who participated in the 2017 March for Science on Earth Day espoused that ideal, saying they were there only in response to the administration’s attacks on science.

Edwards argues scientists may have to assume an activist role when they witness communities facing powerful institutions, such as the state of Michigan. “I would prefer to be able to sit in the office, advise my students and do my research, and that would be enough, but it’s not,” Edwards told me in one of several lengthy phone conversations. Still, as a scientist, he’s not always comfortable having his work cast as activism. He prefers, he says, to call what he does “investigative science,” a blend of “science, investigative reporting and direct collaboration with members of affected communities.”

Note the emphasis on collaboration, a very unscientific process that is subject to all manner of variables, including human emotions. Up until Edwards’s rift with Flint activists, his collaboration with nonscientists had been less fraught. He seemed to work more successfully with activists in Washington. He and Yanna Lambrinidou, an anthropologist who was instrumental in getting his D.C. work before congressional investigators, went on to develop and teach a course together at Virginia Tech about engineering ethics. (Lambrinidou would later sign the letter criticizing Edwards, along with another D.C. water activist, Paul Schwartz.) Edwards’s work in the District also earned him a stream of professional accolades, including a 2007 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In January 2016, The Washington Post was still referring to him as “the heroic professor who helped uncover the Flint lead water crisis.”

By then, though, his relationship with residents in Flint had started to break down. Edwards and his team had continued testing the water, and their results showed that lead levels were falling in line with federal standards — matching what the government was finding. By August 2016, both he and Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who is also credited with raising the alarm about lead in Flint’s water, were saying publicly that the situation in Flint was improving.

An entryway sign above Saginaw Street in Flint. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

But that narrative contradicted the perspective of advocates and groups such as Water Defense, an environmental nonprofit started by actor Mark Ruffalo, which brought in its own expert to sample the water in Flint. The group announced in February 2016 that it had found “harmful chemicals … appearing at levels that often approach or exceed drinking water standards.”

Edwards railed against Ruffalo for needlessly scaring residents. “A-List Actor but F-List Scientist: Mark Ruffalo Brings Fear and Misinformation to Flint” was the title of a May 16, 2016, post on Edwards’s blog at flintwaterstudy.org. He criticized the findings and methods, and the lead investigator for Water Defense later admitted he overstated the dangers of the water. (Water Defense did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Edwards’s tests continued to show that contaminant levels had dropped. In September 2017, his findings were in line with the state’s, showing lead levels within federal regulations. That month, when asked whether Flint had reached “the end of the water crisis,” Edwards replied: “If you define the end of the water crisis as having water quality parameters back in the range considered normal for other cities with old lead pipes, the answer is yes,” albeit with some significant caveats. The state had been providing residents with bottled water for drinking, but Edwards maintained they could also drink out of the tap again if they used filters, and that unfiltered water was safe to bathe in.

To prove his point, he showered in his Virginia home for 20 minutes in water that he concentrated with lead and then took a 20-minute bath “to maximize possible skin absorption,” according to an October 2017 paper he wrote about the experiment titled “Lead Sinkers in the Shower: Effects on Water Lead and Human Exposure.” The point of the experiment, he says, was to show that bathing in lead-poisoned water was not a significant source of exposure. (He also included this somewhat self-defeating disclaimer: “Dr. Edwards has worked on lead in water issues for 30 years — we do not recommend that anyone try this at home.”) Before and after bathing, he wrote, he took three sequential urine samples for testing. They showed no significant increase in the lead levels in his urine.

Some residents, however, heard something else in Edwards’s conclusions. Abel Delgado, a Flint resident and activist who signed the letter criticizing the professor, says that he and others felt betrayed when Edwards seemed to imply the crisis was over. The professor appeared to be “giving in to the narrative of the state, and not the narrative that Flint was facing,” he says. Residents were saying discolored and smelly water was still streaming from their faucets. Lead usually can’t be seen, smelled or tasted in drinking water, experts say. But residents suspected other contaminants.

Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint and a member of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force, says Edwards was “irresponsible” to tell residents that they no longer had to worry about the water. “Researchers can publish reports and say that the water is safe in 90 to 95 percent of households,” Reynolds told me. “In the medical field, we have to deal with the 5 to 10 percent where there is risk.”

In February 2018, the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (a research team consisting of scientists from Wayne State University and other schools) determined that a fatal 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint that received little attention at the time was also the result of the water supply change, and may have been more widespread than previously thought — a finding that the Michigan health department disputed. At least 87 people were infected and 12 died of pneumonia after being exposed to Legionella bacteria in the water. Edwards told me that the Legionnaires’ findings were consistent with his own published research. But some observers say that he didn’t let the research group have its moment. Instead, Edwards homed in on an alleged discrepancy in the résumé of lead investigator Shawn McElmurry, filing an ethics complaint that accused McElmurry of claiming that he worked in Flint longer than he actually did in order to obtain millions of dollars in grants. McElmurry denies the allegations. A spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said the investigation is still pending.

To some Flint residents, Edwards’s focus on lead started to seem myopic and his diatribes against critics self-serving. Benjamin Pauli, a Flint resident and assistant professor of social sciences at Kettering University, told me: “The whole framing of the crisis never really fit with what activists were seeing on the ground.”

A memorial made out of water bottles in Flint.
Kaden Parks, 8, peers out the window as workers load water into cars at a water distribution site in Flint. (Photos by Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)
A memorial made out of water bottles in Flint; Kaden Parks, 8, peers out the window as workers load water into cars at a water distribution site in Flint. (Photos by Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

In March, Edwards was in a courtroom in Flushing, Mich., testifying as a defense witness for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. Lyon is one of five state officials charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct for failing to warn the public about the extent of the Legionnaires outbreak. But Edwards said that Lyon wasn’t to blame and that he was guilty only of trusting Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees, not manslaughter. The case is still making its way through the courts.

Labor leader Claire McClinton says she and other Flint residents were “disappointed” that Edwards would stand up for Lyon. “I do not feel that the focus should be on Edwards,” she told me, “but with that being said, he is a contributor to some of the things that the state has been doing to us.”

A few months after that court appearance, the letter criticizing Edwards appeared. He later filed a defamation lawsuit against three of the activists who signed it: Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Melissa Mays, a mother of three in Flint. In his complaint, Edwards claimed that the trio organized a public smear campaign against him, questioning his scientific integrity and motives for working in Flint in social media posts and media interviews. He sought $3 million in damages, saying he has lost some of his grants, potentially preventing him from uncovering contaminated water in other places. Edwards chalks up the activists’ criticisms to professional jealousy and, in Lambrinidou’s case, romantic feelings that were not reciprocated.

“The Defendants harbor various financial, professional and social incentives to make negative and damaging statements regarding Edwards and his work,” the lawsuit reads. Elsewhere it says: “Each of the defendants has made numerous statements expressing malice and resentment toward the credit and accolades Edwards has received.” The lawsuit cited some of their public postings that Edwards claims have tarnished his reputation. One 2017 Facebook post by Schwartz read: “He [Edwards] has no knowledge of the social sciences, little connections to either of our communities, a disdain for people of color, low income folks, is a follower of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand, who wrote the callow and disdainful libertarian bible, ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ ” (Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Mays declined to comment for this story through their attorney, William Moran, who called the lawsuit baseless and predicted that it could be dismissed in the coming weeks. Lambrinidou later told the Post she denies that she had feelings for Edwards.)

Flint activist Melissa Mays joined others in signing a letter criticizing Edwards’s involvement in the water crisis. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

In Flint, Edwards used public records requests to unearth emails showing that officials in Michigan knew the city’s water was contaminated long before they publicly admitted it. Lately, he has used that same strategy to get copies of emails he hopes will explain what caused the activists in Flint and in D.C. to turn on him. And he continues to use his blog to defend his reputation and update readers on his public spats with activists and other scientists.

I asked Edwards if he thought, looking back, that he had been a bit naive not to have anticipated the reaction to his findings that lead levels in Flint’s water had fallen to safe levels. He says he had expected a backlash but not what he views as a concerted effort to destroy his professional reputation. He stands by his actions, which he perceives as truth telling. “It comes down to duty versus self-preservation,” he says. “In a post-truth world, science has become just another weapon of tribal warfare, and rising above that takes courage.”

LeeAnne Walters didn’t sign the letter criticizing Edwards and still works with him. They have written a peer-reviewed journal article about water testing in Flint. “He has been honest with me. I have talked to other professors, and they try to dumb things down, and that’s why I think we work so well together,” she told me. They are collaborating on another project, which, she says, will focus “on how everyday citizens can better work with academics.”

Despite Edwards’s allegations that comments by Mays, Schwartz and Lambrinidou have cost him grants, he remains busy. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Edwards and Virginia Tech a portion of a $2 million grant “to create a consumer-based framework to detect and control lead in drinking water.”Throughout 2018, he raised questions about the water system in Denmark, S.C., and the state eventually stopped adding a potentially harmful chemical. “I am motivated by shame,” he says. “I cannot stand the thought that science could be abused to hurt innocent people as I witnessed it in Flint and other cases.”

But in Denmark, his relationships with some residents may be souring. Meg Morgan Adams, an advocate with Edisto Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group that has collected water samples in Denmark, says that Edwards helped bring public attention to issues with their water supply but largely left before any problems were fixed. While Edwards still has support in the town, she says that some people felt he unnecessarily pitted residents against the government, making it harder to accomplish anything. (Edwards stands by his approach in South Carolina, and says that while he does not frequently go to Denmark, he corresponds with several residents via phone and email a few times a week. “We always try to cooperate until the system fails,” he says.)

“They are frustrated because it’s all well and good that their water quality is getting national attention, but it’s not fixing the water infrastructure,” says Adams, who lives outside Denmark. “A lot of people are sick of the drama.”

This story has been updated.

Perry Stein is a Post staff writer

Credits: Story by Perry Stein. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks and May-Ying Lam.