University at Buffalo alumnus Marc Edwards is often called the “Hero of Flint.”
The Virginia Tech University environmental engineering professor successfully self-funded a campaign studying and exposing the impoverished Michigan city’s lead water crisis at a time when state and federal agencies tried covering it up.
Edwards, a Ripley native who graduated from UB in 1986, insists he's not a hero.
The accolades suggest otherwise.
Earlier this year, Time Magazine named Edwards to its list of the world's "100 most influential people."
He was featured by the prestigious New York Times Magazine in August.
And, Virginia Tech even created its new Ut Prosim Scholar Award during last spring's commencement to honor "truly extraordinary service to humanity" with Edwards in mind.
Edwards, 52, returned to his alma mater in Buffalo Thursday as a distinguished lecturer, to tell his story and rally the cause for “citizen science.”
“Kids in Flint are not safe. Your kids are not safe. My kids are not safe,” Edwards said. “We’re all paying a price for this.”
“This,” as Edwards said, is environmental injustice coupled with a too-often systemic failure by governmental agencies to either admit to mistakes or deal with them.
He spent years battling bureaucracy in an effort to uncover high lead levels in the District of Columbia’s water supply and the poisoning of its population in the early 2000s.
Last week, a settlement was finally reached in the D.C. lead poisoning lawsuit. Thousands were injured, Edwards said, but five people were compensated.
Edwards said he knew the problem was destined to crop up again, somewhere else.
“There’s no evidence that we learned anything from this tragedy, except this: when I was studying what happened, I learned that there were five heroic scientist and engineer whistle-blowers who tried to do their job throughout this. They were fired.”
Added Edwards: “If this is how you run your government agencies – where you destroy good, courageous, honest actors and you retain and promote weak, unethical cowards – when something like Flint, Mich. happens, why are you the slightest bit surprised?”
Lessons he learned from the nation's capital gave him experience in tackling many of the same bureaucratic problems that cropped up in Flint.
“What happened in Flint, Mich. should be considered a miracle,” Edwards said.
It was a miracle, according to the speaker, made possible because of citizen activists, scientists, doctors and whistle-blowers fighting for the moral cause of exposing wrongs in order to protect Flint’s residents, many of whom lived in poverty, from environmental catastrophe and public servants.
Parlaying $300,000 of his own money, Edwards used his exhaustive experience from D.C. and took on Flint’s case.
“We essentially declared war on our own government to protect Flint kids in an unethical industry,” Edwards said.
The Buffalo Niagara region – one that Edwards regards as “ground zero for citizen science” – has experienced its own miracles, he said.
Miracles like Love Canal’s Lois Gibbs and the Tonawanda Coke case.
Edwards said he uses the more contemporary Tonawanda Coke incident as a case study in his Virginia Tech classes.
Vocal citizen activists, scientists and academics collaborated to press for investigations into the company’s release of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals into the air over a Town of Tonawanda neighborhood.
Some of Edwards’ students even helped in efforts to probe the landmark environmental case that saw the U.S. Attorney’s Office criminally prosecute the company and its leaders responsible for the pollution.
Edwards told an audience in the packed student union that in cases like Flint public servant whistle-blowers are integral.
But Edwards said that because too often agency hierarchy rewards loyalty to the state over service to the public, whistle-blowers are often scapegoated or discredited.
“Governments don’t do a very good job fixing problems they created,” Edwards said.
He talked about LeeAnne Walters – Flint’s Lois Gibbs – who first raised the issue of lead poisoning from the water when she noticed one of her two twin boys was “physically and psychologically stunted.”
Walters, who was told by public servants the water “looked bad” but was “safe to drink,” figured out through her own efforts Flint’s water wasn’t being treated with corrosion controls, which was required by law, and that it had lied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Because of that the water taken from the Flint River was so acidic, it ate away at the lead plumbing in water service lines, causing hazardous levels of lead to enter the city’s water supply.
“The most powerful scientific force in the universe is a mother looking out for the health of her children,” Edwards said.