Va. Tech expert: Mistakes made in Flint water switch

Mike Martindale

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Flushing 67th District Judge David Goggins' name. 

Flushing – The Virginia Tech researcher who uncovered elevated lead levels in Flint’s drinking water testified Monday that he felt mistakes were made during the switch in the city’s delivery system from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Marc Edwards said his research group was “shocked” when members were not able to find higher levels of Legionella pathogens in houses around Flint.

Edwards testified in the district court case involving Nick Lyon, the state Health and Human Services director, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter linked to the Flint water crisis.

Edwards, an environmental engineer, was called to testify before Flushing 67th District Judge David Goggins. Edwards is also expected to testify Tuesday in the case of state Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells in Flint District Court.

Both Lyon and Wells are similarly charged in relation to the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint area that killed 12 and sickened another 79 individuals.

The prosecution says the Flint water switch in April 2014 helped create the conditions for the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Wells is accused of helping to kill at least two individuals by failing to warn the public about the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

Edwards, called by the defense in an effort to raise questions on whether some findings were exaggerated, testified for more than four hours Monday.

“... if federal guidelines had been followed to begin with, there wouldn’t have been any issues,” said Edwards, referring to a series of events involving water pumped into Flint homes beginning in 2014.

The Flint water crisis began when the city’s water supply was contaminated with lead in April 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the source of the city’s drinking water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. When the move was made, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not require adequate corrosion-control chemicals to treat the water, causing lead to leach from joints, pipes and fixtures

In spring 2015, Edwards did testing of the water of Flint resident Lee-Anne Walter and found elevated lead levels he had not seen in 25 years. So he assembled a team of Virginia Tech researchers, took them to Flint to test the water, set up a website and paid $150,000 out of his own pocket to do the work.

He also dug up documents showing that state leaders knew in the summer of 2015 there was lead contamination in Flint’s water. Edwards testified before Congress in March 2016 about the Flint crisis.

Edwards has leveled criticism towards others who researched the problem. In January, Lyon’s attorney Chip Chamberlain attempted to show that Edwards disputed the findings of Wayne State University researcher Shawn McElmurry that testing of home water filters was needed to determine the levels of Legionella bacteria.

Under questioning by another attorney for Lyon, Britt Cobb, Edwards reiterated his testimony Monday.

At one point Monday, Edwards indicated that Legionella levels were lower than might be expected of Flint or even a larger city. Edwards – who helped McElmurry obtain research grants – said subsequent studies should have focused on “large buildings, like health facilities, rather than houses.”

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

In a related development, the Journal of Pediatrics published research Monday that showed blood lead levels in Flint’s young children hit an all-time low in 2016. That news implied that city and state efforts – including advising residents not to drink tap water – paid off after water was switched back to the Detroit water system.

Researchers led by Edwards showed last September that federal standards were being met. Testing of 138 Flint homes showed an average lead reading in August of 8.3 parts per billion, below the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

The August results followed a November 2016 finding of 8.4 parts per billion.


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