Marc Edwards, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, delivered the Walter J. Weber Jr. Distinguished Lecture in Environmental and Energy Sustainability to an audience of about 100 students, faculty and staff Tuesday at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library.
The annual lecture, which is organized by the College of Engineering, brings experts in environmental engineering and science to the University of Michigan to share their work and ideas for the future of their fields.
This year’s lecture, “The Flint and Washington D.C. Drinking Water Lead Crises: How Scientists and Engineers Betrayed the Public Trust,” focused on Edward’s role in exposing water contamination in Washington D.C. between 2001 and 2004 and the current water crisis in Flint. Edwards is the researcher responsible for investigating and uncovering misconduct on the part of scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In his remarks, Edwards talked about the aftermath of exposing the failures of scientists and politicians in charge of protecting public health during both disasters, saying both times it caused a lack of trust in the government.
“We’re talking about a dark side of science and engineering in academia,” he said. “I’m going to tell you today that we have failed miserably in terms of honoring that public trust.”
In the first part of his lecture, Edwards described the efforts of several government agencies in D.C. to cover up the effects of the lead outbreak in the water supply, calling whistleblowing efforts partially a way to uphold the duty of scientists to the public good.
“This crime was perpetrated by government scientists and engineers,” he said. “It was an EPA regulation that inadvertently caused lead to fall into the water.”
In particular, he cited the Centers for Disease Control’s response to the outbreak as deficient, noting the government agency falsified a report denying any effects from the water crisis.
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control came into town and derailed any hope of holding the perpetrators of this crime accountable,” he said. “In defiance of 2,000 years of human history, dozens of peer-reviewed papers, the CDC found that there is no evidence that kids in D.C. drinking all this water with high levels of lead were harmed.”
Edwards compared the mishandling of the D.C. water crisis to the current crisis in Flint, which has had elevated levels of lead in its water for at least the past two years after a switch in the source of their water caused lead from the pipes to leach into the water.
“Governments do not do a good job of fixing problems that they create,” he said. “The lead pipes are there because of a bad law that required them. The consumer had no choice.”
Edwards also emphasized that the series of steps required to prove to the government and American public that the crisis in Flint was real and had negative health impacts aimed to be both comprehensible and understandable.“We sent sampling kits to Flint residents to sample the water for lead,” Edwards said. “We also did simple experiments that anyone, even a reporter, can understand.”
After Edwards conducted several more public experiments following the state government’s refusal to repeat his previous tests, he received the media coverage that attracted the attention of the country to the crisis.
“By early October (2014), it was front cover of The New York Times,” he said. “It wasn’t long before all of America and much of the world learned that what happened in Flint, Michigan was an environmental crime perpetrated by our government against one of our most vulnerable populations in this country.”
LSA freshman Alec Kefgen, who attended the event, said he was surprised to hear that nobody in the Washington D.C. water crisis was held accountable. He said he was glad several perpetrators in the Flint crisis are being prosecuted.
“I heard that the government wasn’t really helping or supporting (the Flint community),” he said. “I was happy to see people got indicted. In the future, people can see what has happened, see the work that (Edwards) did, and be more open to the effects.”
Chemical Engineering Prof. Suljo Linic said he thought the audience would benefit from hearing more about the crises directly from those affected.
“We hope that many students, faculty and colleagues have an opportunity to hear first hand what really happened, what went wrong and what can be done differently so that these kinds of things do not happen in the future,” he said.