Edwards: Flint witness falsified research claims

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The Flint water crisis has spawned a new controversy pitting Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards, who helped discover the city’s lead-contaminated water, against a Wayne State University professor leading a multi-university study of the region’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards confirmed Thursday he’s filed a complaint with Michigan regulators that Wayne State professor Shawn McElmurry used a falsified research proposal and exaggerated work resume to obtain grant funding. McElmurry leads a research team that was awarded a $3.1 million grant to investigate Genesee County’s 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened 79 others.

Edwards’ accusations that McElmurry appropriated another researcher’s ideas for a proposal submitted to the National Institutes of Health and made false claims that he had worked on Flint water problems since 2010 have called into question the credibility of a key witness in the prosecution of Michigan’s two highest-ranking health officials..

He “leveraged those falsifications” to obtain state grant funding, Edwards said in the March 1 complaint, alleging McElmurry’s “lack of competence and expertise” contributed to the ongoing prosecution of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and state Chief Medical Executive Dr. Eden Wells.

The two officials are charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office related to deaths in the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area. McElmurry has testified for Special Prosecutor Todd Flood in the cases.

McElmurry denied Edwards’ allegations in an email to The Detroit News, saying it is “very unfortunate when individuals resort to personal and unfounded attacks rather than relying on sound science and rigorous methods.”

“I stand by the quality of our science and the integrity of our work in Flint and deny the allegations recently raised,” he said. “The claims made against our group are false and they are examples of unprofessional and destructive conduct.”

Edwards, who has criticized other state regulators linked to the Flint crisis but testified for the defense in the Lyon and Wells cases, filed his complaint with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which granted McElmurry’s professional engineering license and could consider sanctions.

Edwards alleges McElmurry obtained the grant funding for his research by using “ideas that were not his” and has no documentation to support claims he had worked on Flint water problems since 2010 or specialized in “urban infrastructure and human health.”

The false claims “put him in a position” to win more than $3 million in state funding for the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, Edwards said. The partnership was charged with trying to find the origins of the Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others.

Edwards said in a Friday email that his Virginia Tech research team did not bid for the Legionnaires' research with the state because Michigan's government did it as a no-bid or "sole source" contract to McElmurry.

"Interestingly, Shawn told myself and Dr. Mona (Hanna-Attisha), that the State said he could hire anyone but me," he said. "I just assumed that was true. The State later denied saying that."

The state discontinued funding in December after the partnership refused to have its work overseen by KWR Watercycle Research Institute, McElmurry told The News in February.

McElmurry, an associate professor of environmental engineering, was one of two Wayne State professors from the partnership who testified that Lyon didn’t seem concerned with saving lives amid the crisis in 2016.

The health director said at a meeting that “I can’t save everyone” in Flint and that “he did not seem to be interested in, my opinion, protecting public health,” McElmurry testified in January before 67th District Judge David Goggins, who will decide whether the case goes to trial. He also testified in the case involving Wells.

By contrast, Edwards testified Monday for Lyon’s defense team that his team’s testing in August 2015 found that Legionella bacteria levels were lower than might be expected in Flint or even a larger city — contrary to what he said he expected to find. The Virginia Tech expert — who helped McElmurry obtain research grants — said subsequent studies should have focused on “large buildings, like health facilities, rather than houses.”

Edwards noted Legionnaires’ disease was discovered at large health providers, including two Flint hospitals.

He also testified for Wells’ defense team on Tuesday, arguing that she was helpful in obtaining hard-to-get emails from state agencies in 2015 when he was investigating Flint water issues and trying to prove an “environmental crime” had been committed. “I was very impressed,” he said before Judge William Crawford II, who will decide whether Wells’ case goes to trial.

McElmurry insisted that the skepticism of Lyon and Wells about the benefits of testing household faucets for Legionella obstructed the partnership’s investigation and is being highlighted by Flood in his prosecution.

In his March 1 complaint, Edwards alleged that Lyon and Wells were prosecuted, in part, “due to their inability to manage Dr. McElmurry’s incompetence to handle such a large project.”

The Virginia Tech expert argues McElmurry’s claims of work on Flint water are based on the work of Kasey Faust, who did work from 2011-15 in Flint for her doctoral dissertation. Edwards said he filed the complaint with the state after reading Faust’s dissertation, talking to her and assessing public documents related to McElmurry’s comments about Flint research. He said McElmurry was an external committee member on Faust’s dissertation work at Purdue University.

In a Thursday post on the Virginia Tech Flint study website, the research team wrote: “To date, we have not found anyone who can verify that McElmurry was leading the research that he claimed into the Flint water distribution system from 2010-2015.”

McElmurry, in denying the accusations, criticized what he called a “well-established pattern of distortions and misinformation by some of the researchers/investigators working in Flint.”

“Unlike some individuals, I have been working as part of a multi-disciplinary team of experts” that includes colleagues from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Colorado State University and Henry Ford Health System, he said.

“Our work has been peer reviewed and accepted for publication in some of the most prestigious scientific journals in the nation.”

Edwards indicated he didn’t like filing the complaint, calling the situation “distasteful and stressful” but “unavoidable.”

“It is my ethical obligation to report possible scientific misconduct — especially when that behavior endangers the public,” Edwards said in a statement. “I fully expect to pay a professional price for upholding my responsibilities.”

It is up to LARA whether to investigate a complaint and decide if it amounts to a violation of occupational code. Edwards indicated in his complaint that he would be willing to testify at a state hearing.