Fraudulence in Flint: How Suspect Science Helped Declare the Water Crisis Over
Nakiya Wakes sat across from me in a Flint, Mich., coffee shop on one of those cloudy, dreary days symbolic of the reeling Rust Belt city.
It was March 2017, nearly two years after Wakes had the first miscarriage. After losing her first baby, she learned there was still a heartbeat—she was actually pregnant with twins, and she hadn’t yet lost her other baby. But her spirits were crushed when she miscarried again, losing the second baby.
This wasn’t the last of the devastating news for Wakes. In September 2017, she learned she was again pregnant with twins. She was hopeful but cautious, feeling deep within her gut that the lead-ravaged water she’d consumed for over a year had made it difficult to carry a baby to full term. Unfortunately, her trepidation was well-founded. She went on to miscarry this set of twins. In total, Wakes lost four babies in two years.
“I was drinking, bathing, everything since I moved to Flint in 2013. I was drinking this contaminated water,” Wakes told me.
It was far too easy for doctors to dismiss her multiple miscarriages as a result of her age: She was 42 when she miscarried for the second time. But research indicates that the lead crisis in Flint may have played a role. The crisis unfolded in 2014 when the city changed its water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. Because corrosion control was not added to the water supply, lead leached from the pipes into Flint’s water, causing a variety of health problems for residents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning increases the chances for a miscarriage.
And in September 2017, health economists at West Virginia University and Kansas University released a working paper, finding a “horrifyingly large” increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages in Flint—stating that between “198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water.”
While mourning her lost babies, Wakes also was seeing dramatic behavioral and health changes in her two living children, then ages 18 and 8. For example, her 8-year-old received one school suspension before the water switch, but over 50 after it. Stories like this are abundant in Flint.
Melissa Mays, a leading Flint resident, activist and mother of three, has been faced with trauma in her own family. Two of her boys, Christian, 15, and Cole, 13, have had ongoing physical therapy because their growth plates hardened prematurely due to lead and other heavy metals. Her 19-year-old, Caleb, has irregular thyroid levels, blood pressure and pancreatic function, all attributable to high lead levels.
“My 14-year-old just hit 6 feet and he can’t walk. He’s hunched over, and he had to drop out of sports,” she told me last year.
I spoke with Wakes, Mays and many other residents and experts as part of a six-month investigation into the Flint water crisis. What I found was alarming.
Is Flint’s Water ‘Restored’?
It might seem easy to put these stories in the category of things that have happened in the past. The lead crisis, after all, has been declared over. This, according to a statement Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released in April to justify closing Flint’s free bottled water distribution centers.
“Nearly two years of LCR [Lead and Copper Rule] data and thousands of other tests show that Flint’s water is testing the same as or better than similar cities across the state,” Snyder said. “Flint’s water is now well within the standards set by the federal government.”
This decision was met with pushback from Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, state representatives and thousands of residents. All noted a lack of trust, resources and proof that the water is safe.
To prove that the water was safe, the Environmental Protection Agency hired Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist. Edwards, with funding from the National Science Foundation and Virginia Tech, had conducted his initial round of lead testing in Flint in August 2015. He had identified alarming levels of lead in the city’s water, winning him the adoration of Flint residents and the media as a scientific hero.
The EPA originally conducted its own Flint water testing in early 2016, then contracted Edwards and his research team to complete the testing. The agency confirmed to me that they funded Edwards to the tune of $168,307 in grants.
“Today, we have equally definitive data showing that levels of these parameters currently in Flint water are now back to normal levels for a city with old lead pipes,” Edwards reported on Sept. 15, 2017. He went on to say in an interview that Flint was “very definitively in a range that’s considered normal for other cities with lead pipes.”
His August 2015 study, in which residents took water samples, had found the lead level in Flint’s water to have a 90th-percentile compliance of 20.8 parts per billion (ppb), which was above the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb. Two years and four testing rounds later, Edwards found the lead level to be 8.3 ppb. Using these numbers, his declaration served as the “all clear” sign for the water.
But an examination of Edwards’ testing methods and findings, and the EPA’s refusal to answer specific questions about the testing it funded, raises more questions than it answers.
Testing is supposed to adhere to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) for water sampling. Many experts argue that this rule, even if strictly followed, doesn’t go far enough in protecting people from being poisoned. According to the LCR, water sampling must target homes that are most at risk, called Tier 1 homes. The breakdown of samples must include 50 percent of samples from single-family homes connected to a lead service line, with the other half coming from single-family homes with lead pipes or copper pipes with lead solder.
At the start of Edwards’ Flint testing in August 2015, residents sampled 277 homes. Over the following two years, Edwards’ subsequent four rounds of testing shrank to just 138 homes in a city of 40,000. To declare the water in Flint “normal” in 2017, Edwards took a subset of 34 of the 138 total homes tested to claim he satisfied the LCR. According to his data, he paired 17 homes that he surmised were connected to lead service lines with a random selection of 17 other homes “without lead pipes but built before 1986.”
Edwards told me he “picked the 17 other homes randomly, many times, to see what difference it would make in calculating a hypothetical 90 percentile. What this calculation shows is that for a pool of samples that is 50 percent lead, with 34 total, you get what we got.”
So how did Edwards verify he was testing 17 homes connected to lead service lines? He told me he researched the age of homes online to surmise the likely material of the service lines they were connected to.
“You are allowed to select a Tier 1 pool based simply on age of the house and suspected lead solder material based on house age,” Edwards told me. “I don’t like it. I hope you don’t like it either.” The EPA wouldn’t confirm whether they allow this, but I found no written evidence or EPA regulation stating that water testing can be done by researching the ages of homes online or gathering data based on “suspected lead solder.”
But potentially more concerning is the study Edwards and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality used to claim they were indeed testing homes connected to lead service lines. According to Edwards’ blog, he used the University of Michigan-Flint’s “open science” mapping study of where lead service lines were located in the city. According to the university, Flint has an estimated 8,000 homes with lead service lines. Of these homes, Edwards said he tested just 17.
But the U of M-Flint study had severe flaws.
John Gleason, the clerk for Genesee County, in which Flint is situated, explained to me his shock when Marty Kaufman, the leader of the U of M study, came into his office with a startling admission. “When Dr. Kaufman came in here almost two years ago and was reviewing the water line situation, he admitted that they had missed—because they were working off index cards—that there was a void of between 11,000 and 15,000 homes that they didn’t have any records of. I was stunned.”
Kaufman told me his study used all available resources: 240 parcel maps the city had coded to show the composition of its water service lines. But these maps were updated only until 1984, and according to Kaufman, much of the pre-1984 service line information was missing. “Eleven thousand to 13,000 [homes] … had no code [for service line connection] at all.”
Kaufman pointed out the haphazard way Flint had recorded the information. “The city had recorded all of its information on 3×5 cards—like an old library system—and we looked at those and a lot of them were in pencil and unreadable and we decided not to use them,” Kaufman told me, adding that “the city had also recorded the individual parcel maps, meaning each set of streets has a map of the property lines drawn. And it was within the rectangle of where the parcel was, they had a code of C for copper, or C to L (copper to lead) or an indicator for galvanized pipes as well. It was on that basis that we produced where the lead lines were.”
Kaufman acknowledged that many properties’ information was discarded as unreadable off the index cards. Compounding the problem, many homes changed their service lines years after being built without having the change documented anywhere. “There could have been,” Kaufman conceded, regarding the possibility that homes suspected of having lead service lines could have had the lines changed to copper, or another material, with no record of such a change.
He acknowledged having concerns about his study missing a large swath of lead service lines. “Yes, we do, because, again, the records were only updated until 1984, plus we had all those unknown records, and as you say, not necessarily good information on what kind of updates were made.”
Gleason condemned Edwards’ scientific declaration and study: “I think it’s haphazard, and in the situation we’re dealing with, irresponsible and neglectful,” Gleason said. “Science is based on facts and evidence. If you’re not walking down the basement stairs and looking at that piping in that house, you can’t say it’s factual or scientific. It doesn’t meet the basic definition of scientific.”
In an email to me, Edwards acknowledged the lack of certainty that he tested homes connected to lead service lines: “We do not know for sure. That is a national problem with the LCR. Utilities use imperfect records all the time. I don’t know why it is allowed. But it is.”
The lack of certainty on where lead service lines in Flint are located isn’t a concern limited to officials such as Gleason. It seems the EPA agrees.
In October 2017, just weeks after Edwards declared Flint’s water “normal,” the agency released an audit of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) testing. This is the same agency that made the devastating error of not adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the Flint River water, thus causing lead to leach into the water system.
Specifically, the EPA audit noted significant uncertainty as to where lead service lines were in Flint. This means that there’s no definitive way of knowing if the homes the state tested met the EPA’s LCR, or that the homes tested were the most at risk for lead.
The audit cited a Nov. 12, 1991, letter from MDEQ to the EPA stating: “The State does not have sufficient knowledge of service line materials and plumbing materials to second-guess the sites certified by the public water supplies.”
It went on to cite inadequate information about service lines in more recent years: “The Flint PWS [Public Water System] reported in 2014 and 2015 that all Tier 1 sampling sites had LSLs [lead services lines] and did not include sites with copper service lines with lead solder installed between 1983 and 1988. MDEQ’s file did not include a reference document to verify that each such service line was positively identified as a LSL.”
But the most damning part of the EPA audit came in regard to the location of lead service lines being surmised from index cards.
“Once MDEQ became aware that Flint’s information on service line materials, which was originally on index cards and recently converted to electronic files, did not provide the needed verification, MDEQ sent a letter on November 9, 2015, requiring the Flint PWS to provide verification for all of the sites it used since 1992 (324 different locations).”
MDEQ’s letter to Flint’s utility administrator explained that the agency obtained access to 10,895 digital records and “cross referenced them with the addresses for the City’s 324 historic LCR compliance monitoring sites.”
What they found was completely inadequate: “However, only 46 of the 324 sites were able to be matched at the current time. Of these 46 sites, only 6 sites contained information confirming the Tier 1 site criteria based on having lead service line materials. Fourteen sites were listed as having no available information (n/a), and require additional documentation to justify being designated as a Tier 1 sample site having a lead service line. The remaining 26 cross referenced sites were listed as having copper service line materials which conflicts with the City’s LCR reports certifying these sites as Tier 1 based on the criteria of having a lead service line.”
Essentially, the EPA audit pointed out how problematic the lack of certainty about the location of Flint’s lead service lines was. This is critical considering both Edwards’ EPA-funded testing and MDEQ’s testing claimed their sampling consisted of 50 percent lead service lines—as per EPA regulations.
Edwards’ own team at Virginia Tech echoed this lack of certainty. During a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” Q and A in 2015, Edwards’ lead researcher, Siddhartha Roy, said: “According to one estimate, Flint has over 15,000 lead service lines and to the best of our knowledge, no one knows where most of them are. Prolific testing (especially testing again and again in homes/schools/hospitals/businesses/prisons/other facilities) where we and the state found lead problems should be carried out to monitor reduction in lead levels.”
This admission is in stark contrast to Edwards’ own words. In an email, he told me, “There are records showing what the service line material is. That is considered a definitive source of information by the EPA for constituting a pool. They do not require plumbers inspection.”
Based on his blog, the records Edwards seems to be referring to are from the aforementioned flawed U of M-Flint study on which both Edwards and MDEQ based their testing. There’s also the question of why Edwards tested only 17 homes connected to lead service lines—and again, there’s no way of confirming they were lead service lines—in a city with an abundance of homes served by lead lines.
Harold Harrington, a plumber in Flint who appeared as an expert resource during Rachel Maddow’s 2016 Flint Water Crisis reporting, told me, “I’ve talked to the City of Flint Water Department, and they’ve told me 80 percent of them from the main [street level] to the valve box in the yard could be lead; there’s a lot more than 8,000, I can tell you that.”
Harrington called Edwards’ claim of testing homes with lead service lines guesswork: “If he’s not looking at the meter, and if he’s not digging up the valve box at the yard, it’s just a guess. All these are just guesses.”
This guesswork was demonstrated by construction workers tasked with replacing the city’s lead service lines. As of May 2017, 22 percent of excavations were dead ends: Crews dug up streets thinking they would find lead service lines only to find copper pipes.
“I don’t think anybody would say identifying 34 homes is a large enough sample size when you have what’s going on in Flint,” Harrington said. “I don’t think that’s a good enough sample size for anywhere in the country, but when you got a crisis like this going on in Flint, I would say that’s nowhere near enough sample size.”
Edwards also acknowledged he didn’t use licensed plumbers to confirm the composition of the service line material for the homes he tested, concluding that this wasn’t required by the EPA.
On this, he’s correct. The LCR doesn’t mandate licensed plumbers be used, but it does require a “materials inventory,” which includes the locations of lead service lines. Without plumbers, or reliable historical documentation to verify the service lines of the homes Edwards tested, it’s difficult to confirm that inventory. MDEQ did only slightly better, using licensed plumbers from Harrington’s UA370 union for two months of testing. The agency then shifted to relying on residents from Flint’s volunteer CORE program to surmise the service line material of homes.
“They weren’t plumbers, they were just residents,” Harrington emphasized. In contrast, his union’s plumbers would be able to confirm what the service line material entering the home was, what the size was and what the linear footage was—something average citizens couldn’t be expected to know with any certainty.
There are additional questions surrounding Edwards’ EPA-funded testing. The state testing operated on standard monitoring, while Edwards used reduced monitoring. Standard monitoring requires that double the number of homes be sampled. A water utility also requires written permission from the EPA to conduct reduced monitoring.
“On reduced monitoring, you only need 30 samples total for a city the size of Flint,” Edwards told me. “I do not like it. But that is the rule. If you do not like it, we have something in agreement.”
But based on Flint’s census population size, Edwards is incorrect. According to the 2010 census (the next census is scheduled for 2020), Flint has 102,434 citizens. The LCR states that for a system with over 100,000 people, a reduced monitoring sampling would have to collect at least 50 samples.
The only way Edwards, who does not represent a water utility (an agency that provides the local water to communities and is tasked with testing the water to meet the EPA LCR) but claims to have followed the LCR, could have tested on reduced monitoring is through a formal written exemption from the EPA. These exemptions aren’t easily granted by the EPA for areas that have had serious lead problems. For example, nearly two decades after the beginning of a lead crisis in Washington, D.C., the EPA still has not provided permission for the city to conduct reduced monitoring testing. And the problem of cheating on water testing by utilities is pervasive.
Edwards confirmed to me he didn’t receive written permission. The EPA declined to answer repeated questions regarding Edwards’ testing on reduced monitoring.
In addition to the LCR rules prohibiting Edwards’ deployment of reduced monitoring, U.S. courts did as well. In a $97 million settlement agreement in March 2017 between the state of Michigan and the Concerned Pastors for Social Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Michigan ACLU and Mays, the EPA and Michigan agreed that reduced monitoring wouldn’t be allowed in Flint until one year after the completion of 18,000 lead service line replacements. Estimates of when the pipes will be replaced brings that date to Jan. 1, 2021.
Granted, Edwards’ study began in 2015, before the settlement agreement stipulated that reduced monitoring wouldn’t be allowed. But if both federal and state agencies are not legally allowed to permit reduced monitoring testing in Flint, the question becomes how Edwards’ Flint testing, predominantly funded by the EPA, can be used to confirm the state’s testing.
Another part of the settlement mandated that testing be done between May and June or between July and August, since pipes are most likely to be at risk for having higher lead levels during the spring and summer.
But 40 percent of Edwards’ testing fell outside those parameters. Two of his five rounds were conducted in March and November 2016, respectively. So, as per the state of Michigan’s own mandate in the settlement, Edwards not only used reduced monitoring when he wasn’t allowed to, but also tested in months he was prohibited from doing so.
Erin Brockovich: ‘The Testing … Is Neither Sufficient nor Scientific’
Throughout the Flint water crisis, there’s been a hesitation among scientists and academics to question the science being used to declare an improvement in the city’s water quality. It seems understood that knocking the methodology of another scientist, particularly one who has been praised as a hero, is something you don’t do—and could put your own funding at risk.
Edwards himself has spoken about the pressures associated with academia and scientific research in an age where funding is king.
“The fate of mankind rests as never before on scientists and engineers finding solutions to our problems,” he said on a panel at Marquette University in 2016. “What is to become of us if we are untrustworthy? The public is turning away from us, in many cases for good reason. We are too much looking out for ourselves, trying to get funding, skewing results in favor of a funding agency, whether it’s a federal agency or other entity.”
Legendary environmental advocate Erin Brockovich expressed a strong lack of trust in Edwards’ declaration that Flint’s water is back to “normal.”
“The testing used to sound the ‘all clear’ in Flint is neither sufficient or scientific,” she said. “Back to normal levels for a city with old lead pipes—what does that even mean? This is only going to kill you a little? It is a colloquial, non-scientific statement based on emotions and not facts.”
Brockovich, who rose to fame by exposing corporate polluters poisoning people in California, also has confronted the EPA over the years for having lax testing on everything from lead to volatile chemicals. Edwards’ testing, which has been reported fairly uncritically by a majority of media outlets, is irresponsible, she said.
“Simply equating a set of lead water contamination test data at any particular point in time and declaring the water safe to drink is in no way scientific or responsible. There is no such thing as normal, no two water qualities in this country are the same. Lead leaches out of pipes and plumbing fixtures at different rates and under various conditions. In Flint, the water quality nearest the treatment plant is very different than the water quality across town.”
Questions Surrounding the State’s Testing
MDEQ’s testing, which Edwards’ EPA-funded study claimed was correct, has its own holes. The state’s testing has shown a significant amount of elevated lead samples around the same time Edwards’ study declared the water normal.
When looking from one month before Edwards declared Flint’s water normal in September 2017 through the present day, MDEQ’s residential testing drew 137 samples of lead levels above the EPA’s allowable limit of 15 parts per billion. In many cases, the lead found was at alarmingly increased levels.
Melissa Mays and other residents I’ve interviewed view this data—along with the claims by the state in the first year of the crisis that the water was fine—as evidence the state is cherry-picking their sampling to produce lower lead readings.
Upon closer examination, there’s an unsettling number of residents with homes with alarmingly high lead levels that the state never retested. According to the state’s online map of where MDEQ tested in Flint, many homes were found to have lead levels several hundred parts per billion above the EPA’s 15 ppb action level. For example, 608 Carrill Court was found to have 11,846 ppb in March 2016. Even with that staggering level, the state never retested this address.
Bernard Meader, 64, owns the home and tested the water himself (most water testing has been done by residents and sent to labs by the state). Following the Lifetime made-for-TV movie about Flint, the network aired a mini-documentary. In it, Meader was shown calling MDEQ, pleading for follow-up testing.
“I tried getting a hold of MDEQ, but no one answers,” Meader told me. After repeated attempts, he reached someone who told him he’d come to his home. “Jamie Hockemeyer, environmental quality analyst, was supposed to come to my house, and he never did. They never came over here.”
Hockemeyer, now a superintendent at the water plant in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, did not respond to a request for comment. Instead, Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for MDEQ, responded by saying Hockemeyer no longer worked for MDEQ and directed me to a recent press release that “outlines Flint’s restored water quality.”
She added, “We don’t typically discuss residents’ individual situations with media. I can tell you that the information I have differs from what you have shared with me. I am going to have a team follow up with him again to answer any concerns, questions, or for any additional follow-up.” When I asked Brown how the governor and the state could declare Flint’s water safe when many homes like Meader’s last tested at high lead levels but were never retested, she didn’t answer.
Meader doesn’t believe the state’s claim that the water is normal. “No, I don’t buy that, because there’s been lead in those pipes for so many years. Sometimes the water has to back up and go forward and back up again.”
It’s not just Meader’s home, according to the state map. Here are a few of many homes that were not retested: 3930 Brown St. tested at 5,447 ppb in January 2016;, 454 East Atherton Rd. was found to have 1,119 ppb in February 2016; 232 Browning Ave. had 780 ppb in February 2016; 518 South Meade St. had 355 ppb in May 2016; 1620 Euclid Ave. was found to have 556 ppb in January 2016.
This lack of follow-up testing in the worst affected areas raises questions of how bad certain areas of Flint still are and why there hasn’t been follow-up testing.
Residents are starting to fight back. In April 2018, Flint resident Allen Bryant Jr. filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to try to force Michigan to continue to provide free bottled water to residents after the program was ended. His home on Oren Avenue had a lead level of 1,338 ppb and copper levels of 1,770 ppb—both nearly 100 times the EPA action level. These samples were taken from Jan. 1 through April 2.
The Lead and Copper Rule: Flawed From the Start
There are strong arguments now being made that the LCR itself doesn’t go far enough to protect citizens in Flint and the rest of the country.
On this, Brockovich told me: “[The system is] designed to cheat. The testing prescribed by the USEPA for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule is nowhere near sufficient. Once a community has identified significant lead in its service materials and has changed its water source or identified a shift in source water quality … significant lead and copper testing should be offered to any consumer that may be impacted. The Lead and Copper Rule is designed to cheat and even when applied appropriately is nothing but a false sense of security.”
Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech social scientist who in the past did work alongside Marc Edwards, was on the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council for the LCR and has been a strong voice highlighting its failings. She offered a dissenting opinion to the council’s report, saying that a more concerted effort was needed to protect people from lead exposure since even small exposures can cause significant harm. The research backs her up.
According to the World Health Organization: “There is no known safe blood lead concentration. But it is known that, as lead exposure increases, the range and severity of symptoms and effects also increases. Even blood lead concentrations as low as 5 ug/dL, once thought to be a ‘safe level,’ may be associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioral difficulties, and learning problems.”
In her dissent, Lambrinidou, who also spoke in front of the U.S. House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in 2016, further pointed out that lead levels have historically been misrepresented and manipulated, citing a 2004 Washington Post report.
“Cities across the country are manipulating the results of tests used to detect lead in water, violating federal law and putting millions of Americans at risk of drinking more of the contaminant than their suppliers are reporting. Some cities, including Philadelphia and Boston, have thrown out tests that show high readings or have avoided testing homes most likely to have lead, records show. In New York City, the nation’s largest water provider has for the past three years assured its 9.3 million customers that its water was safe because the lead content fell below federal limits. But the city has withheld from regulators hundreds of test results that would have raised lead levels above the safety standard in two of those years, according to records.”
Lambrinidou told me that declarations depicting Flint’s water as “normal” are irresponsible.
“The Lead and Copper Rule is a regulation that allows for chronic and acute health harm from lead in water, even when all the requirements it sets are met,” she said, adding that MDEQ’s testing in Flint “illustrates this problem well.”
Lambrinidou also pointed out the ongoing examples of alarmingly elevated lead levels still being detected in Flint.
“Despite official claims that the city’s water is once again in compliance with federal standards, lead levels in the hundreds and even thousands parts per billion are still being detected in individual homes. The contamination today may be less severe than it was four years ago. But any characterization of it as ‘normal’ asks Flint residents to accept miscarriage, stillbirth, and irreversible brain and neurological damage from their water as an ‘ordinary’ mishap. In other words, it asks Flint residents to place bureaucratic criteria, standards, and priorities over and above their own health. I do not know any informed and responsible adult who would agree to such an ask.”
Lambrinidou’s argument, which is supported by many clean water activists and victims of lead poisoning, shows that regardless of the data being presented by government agencies and government-funded scientists, it’s highly suspect to declare Flint’s water safe, or “restored,” as Gov. Snyder said—especially when over half the corroded lead service lines remain in the ground. It’s estimated that it will take through the end of 2019 to replace those pipes in Flint. Replacing the pipes is necessary, of course, but this work poses the risk of dislodging even more lead into the water.
Christopher Metzler, a researcher who helped write Minnesota’s wastewater treatment runoff rules, echoed Lambrinidou’s argument about the LCR being inadequate, while zeroing in on Edwards’ testing.
“He spoke as if the federal standards are the ceiling and not the floor,” Metzler told me. “As a trained researcher, he knows that and never should have used that as a rationale.” Even if Edwards’ testing did meet federal standards and regulations—which my reporting indicates it didn’t—it’s not enough to declare Flint safe, Metzler said.
“You have already pointed out the sample size error—to make the conclusion that the federal standard is the standard against which Flint should be judged is to assume that the federal standards are correct. Given the team of scientists he had, why did they not devise a standard rather than simply conclude that it meets the flawed federal standard? The research question you ask is the research question you answer.”
Prior to declaring the water in Flint back to normal levels, Edwards made similar denouncements of the LCR. “The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule … is 25 years old, it’s full of loopholes, it’s not sufficiently protective,” he said in September 2016. He went further, telling former NewsOne anchor Roland Martin in 2017 that “the EPA is six years overdue in revising that standard.”
Edwards also has wavered on whether his water testing in Flint followed the LCR. According to his own blog, he didn’t: “We have always made it clear that our work was not an official LCR sampling event.”
Edwards doubled down on this in an email to me: “The only official LCR study is that done by the city of Flint and overseen by Michigan,” he said. “Our unofficial study can get an idea of whether they did it right or not.”
Yet, as part of his test results released in September 2017—which offered the methods he used to declare Flint’s water normal—Edwards described his “calculated LCR results.”
On Friday evening, the entire city of Flint was put on a boil water advisory after a water main ruptured, depressurizing the entire system. Residents were instructed to filter their water followed by boiling it before drinking or using it for other needs.
“At this time the full area of depressurization is unknown, so we are issuing the boil water notice city wide,” Rob Bincsik, Flint’s director of public works, said, adding that bacterial testing would be done. By Saturday night, the advisory was lifted.
Water mains have been rupturing for years as weak spots in old infrastructure burst.
“They’re fixing water mains on a daily basis,” Harrington told me, adding that the “Flint River water didn’t help.” With the pipes already vulnerable due to age-related corrosion before the 2014 water switch, adding the corrosive Flint River water to the system took years off the life of already old pipes.
Weeks before the boil water advisory, on April 13, Susan Masten, a professor and associate chair at Michigan State University’s College of Engineering, released the results of her own, independent water testing in Flint. Masten’s sampling, conducted between August 2017 and March of this year, was part of the March 2017 settlement agreement mentioned earlier in this report between the state of Michigan and the Concerned Pastors for Social Justice et al. The settlement also stipulated that the plaintiffs would monitor the testing.
Masten tested 92 homes believed to be connected to lead service lines and found a 90th percentile lead concentration of 4 ppb, falling considerably below the EPA action level of 15 ppb. Like Edwards’ testing and MDEQ’s testing, this study also relied on records from the flawed U of M-Flint mapping study on where lead service lines are.
Of the results, the NRDC, an environmental advocacy organization, said: “From this data, one can conclude that lead levels in Flint are improving from where they were a few years ago as measured by the Lead and Copper Rule. And over time, this monitoring can help confirm that MDEQ and the city are no longer manipulating the Lead and Copper Rule’s testing process.”
But the NRDC stressed that Masten’s testing was not indicative of Flint’s water being safe. “[We] must also recognize the limits of this testing. These results do not show the water in Flint generally is ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe.’ No amount of lead in drinking water is safe. Also, this testing was limited to lead and copper, as discussed below. Therefore, we cannot draw sweeping conclusions about the general quality of the city’s water from the results of this monitoring program.”
Twelve days after Masten’s study was published, the four-year anniversary of the disastrous water switch arrived. The reality for the majority of impoverished Flint residents is in stark contrast to the picture being painted by public officials.
Residents continue to post on social media images of discolored water coming from their taps. Others suffer worsening medical issues as new cognitive, autoimmune, liver, kidney and other types of ailments present themselves. Adding insult to injury, residents must confront a mountain of medical bills that arrive daily—without full Medicare to pay for their illnesses brought on by lead—and perhaps other toxicants not tested for.
There’s also a growing concern among residents and water experts about the threat of bacteria leaching into water. Although water filters the state provided have been shown to block most of the lead, the filters are known to breed bacteria. Under some circumstances, these bacteria could pose health problems to some populations.
Meanwhile, Edwards just received a $1.9 million grant from the EPA and a $600,000 federal HUD grant to do the type of testing he conducted in Flint in other vulnerable communities across the U.S. These grants come on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars in other grants he’s received from the Mott Foundation, the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, MIT Media Lab and the National Science Foundation. According to Edwards’ blog, none of these funds has gone into his pocket.
“Dr. Edwards does not receive any extra financial compensation for his research with the EPA, State of Michigan, or Greater Flint Community Foundation. These contracts have been set up, so that for every hour that Dr. Edwards works on Flint research, money for that time goes to Virginia Tech to compensate for not doing work for the University—it does not increase Dr. Edwards’ take home pay.”
The EPA offered me an endorsement of Edwards and Virginia Tech: “Virginia Tech’s sampling and analysis has helped to demonstrate reductions in lead levels that occurred when the city switched back to Detroit water and began to add more phosphates to reduce corrosion,” an agency spokesperson told me. “There has been a measurable improvement in the quality of the water delivered to Flint residents. Lead levels in drinking water have declined and corrosion control treatment is being maintained in the system.”
The agency’s statement is puzzling, considering that Edwards, who during Rachel Maddow’s January 2016 Flint town hall said adding phosphates to the pipes would recoat the pipes and prevent lead from continuing to leach off, reversed himself months later. “The idea that we were going to coat these pipes with orthophosphate and make the water safe to drink, it looks a little naïve in retrospect. And anybody who has looked at this problem now feels this way,” he said in September 2016.
Edwards remains steadfast that the testing he’s completed in Flint has safeguarded the community, recently telling Harvard Political Review: “We acted [upon] the first canon of civil engineering: thou shalt protect the public welfare.”
But that assertion doesn’t match the feedback I’ve received from dozens of residents in nine reporting trips to Flint.
Lambrinidou, who told The New York Times Edwards had contributed to a “hero narrative” in Flint, told me that scientists shouldn’t hijack the environmental recovery process, or narrative, from residents of poisoned communities like Flint.
“The first canon of the engineering code of ethics is holding paramount the ‘safety, health and welfare of the public,’ ” she said. “This, of course, does not mean that our society has granted engineers the right to enter communities fighting environmental injustice and define for these communities concepts as complex and value-laden as ‘safety,’ ‘health’ and ‘welfare.’ ”
Lambrinidou, who taught a class with Edwards at Virginia Tech on engineering ethics and the public, concluded scientists shouldn’t exploit vulnerable communities. Society hasn’t “granted engineers the authority to decide for affected publics how best to achieve justice in their own areas,” she told me. “Using the first canon of the engineering profession as justification for dominating, exploiting, or marginalizing disenfranchised communities seems like a gross and dangerous misinterpretation of a noble principle, and something that all engineers would want to condemn loudly and clearly.”
Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, questioned the science on the four-year anniversary of the water switch.
“You still can’t trust the water in Flint,” he said at a news conference. “No matter what the science says, and there’s arguments about the science, don’t get me wrong, but Flint is not a science project. It’s a community of people who have lost all trust in the institutions of government, for good reason. Let’s keep in mind, the people of Flint were told the water was safe to drink once before. And at that moment, the government knew that the water was not safe to drink, and they told the people of Flint to just calm down, to just relax.”
Asked for his thoughts on the declarations that Flint’s water was now safe, Kildee offered no assurances.
“People in Flint still do not trust the water—for good reason, since families were told by the state that their water was safe to drink, when it fact it was not,” he said. “The only way to restore confidence for Flint families is to replace all of the lead service lines and improve our outdated laws.”
Kildee zeroed in on one law in particular: “We must update the outdated Lead and Copper Rule, which currently fails to protect public health. I have introduced the NO LEAD Act, which would strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule and restore confidence in our drinking water systems.”
Ultimately, there are serious questions among Flint residents and experts as to whether Flint’s water is truly safe—or whether the testing that’s been done has been adequate or followed regulations. Melissa Mays might have expressed what the entire community feels when she recently spoke to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“They’re letting people die here,” she told the former presidential candidate.
Will America, and the rest of the media, listen before it’s too late?