From hero to pariah, Flint water expert fights for his reputation

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Virginia Tech Civil & Environmental Engineering professor Marc Edwards works in his university lab.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include an email correspondence between Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and anthropologist Yanna Lambrinidou regarding allegations he made in a lawsuit.

Flint — Marc Edwards is on the prowl.

Spending $100,000 on lawsuits and public records requests, he has foraged through thousands of pages of transcripts, court testimony and documents from colleges and government agencies.

The tenacious Virginia Tech professor, who helped expose contaminated water in Flint and Washington, has an investigative bent that makes him a scourge of scientists and government bureaucrats.

But this investigation isn’t about lead-laced water. It's about his enemies.

He is fighting with Flint activists and Michigan scientists. He said they’re exaggerating the danger of city water, which has met federal standards for two years. They said he’s unwilling to entertain new research.

The dispute involves lawsuits, open letters, death threats, alleged spurned love and accusations of plagiarism and falsified water data. It has played out in emails, blogs, social media, science conferences and scholarly journals.

“You really can’t make this stuff up,” marveled Amy Pruden, an environmental engineer from Virginia Tech who worked beside Edwards on the Flint water crisis.

Edwards is going after his critics with the same fervor he used against water regulators in Michigan and Washington.

After thousands of hours of research, he has produced a 12-part (and growing) blog that gives a withering review of the work done by the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, a group of scientists from various Michigan universities.

“I’m going to tell the truth,” Edwards said. “If that makes you mad, I’m sorry. I don’t care who you are, a government agency or an activist in Flint.”

He said he mounted the offensive to protect his reputation, but critics said he's more interested in bloodying the reputation of others.

Among his accusations: the leader of FACHEP allegedly appropriated research by a graduate student, an activist leader purportedly finagled the test results of water in her home, and a critic turned against him after he rebuffed her advances.

Edwards tends to question the motives of anyone who disagrees with him and uses the negative perception to justify attacking the person, said Ben Pauli, a FACHEP liaison to the community.

"Never did I dream someone would portray all of this as a sordid story of ulterior motives and catastrophic scientific ineptitude," said Pauli, an assistant professor of social science at Kettering University in Flint.

Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards

Truth teller or dissident?

Anyone with a magazine subscription has probably heard about Edwards.

In 2016 the environmental engineer was among Time’s 100 most influential people, Fortune’s 50 greatest leaders, Politico’s top 50 visionaries and Foreign Policy’s 100 greatest thinkers.

Wiry and handsome, he sees himself as a lone wolf, a truth teller, a troublemaker. Even as a student, he would challenge widely held beliefs and prove them wrong, former classmates and teachers said.

“He was just unusually gifted, enough to challenge conventional wisdom in a way that is rare. He was always that way,” said Mark Benjamin, a professor emeritus of environmental engineering who was Edwards’ adviser at the University of Washington.

Edwards, 54, is whip smart, maybe brilliant, others said. He won a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 2007.

He regularly describes other scientists as cowards and used car salesmen. He says academia has been besotted by the incessant need to be noticed, published and funded.

His is a higher calling, he said. In fact, it’s the first canon of his profession’s code of ethics: Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.  

While he views science with a finely nuanced mind, he isn’t quite as dispassionate about people, said acquaintances. He tends to see them in black and white, all good or all bad.

“He invests himself emotionally. It becomes good guys - bad guys,” said Steve Reiber, a suburban Seattle engineering consultant who once tussled with Edwards in Washington, D.C.

“He takes a position that — how should I say it? — sometimes goes to the extreme.”

Spongebob Scarepants 

By 2015, Flint residents had been complaining about their drinking water for a year, ever since the city switched its supply from the city of Detroit to the Flint River. But local, state and federal officials insisted the water was fine.

Edwards and his team from Virgina Tech, paying their own way, came to town and tested the water for a month. They announced in September 2015 that lead levels in the tap water of 5,000 homes exceeded safety standards of the World Health Organization.

Six weeks later, the government officials came around. The state of Michigan declared a public health emergency.

“No one else was willing to help,” said LeeAnne Walter, an activist leader who helped bring Edwards to town. “He’s all about trying to find the truth.”

While Michigan’s capitulation ended one war, a longer one was looming.

The state’s prevarications about the water led to a loss of trust by residents, who became receptive to anyone who challenged the government.

Enter Water Defense, an environment group started by actor Mark Ruffalo.

Flint had returned to Detroit water in October 2015 but Water Defense claimed the water was still bad. Its water expert, Scott Smith, said his testing found harmful chemicals that made the water unsafe for drinking and maybe even bathing.

He referred to Smith as SpongeBob Scarepants.

“The way I roll is: If you’re causing a problem, I will call you out,” said Edwards. “If you want to be part of the solution, I’ll work with you.”

Smith, who was eventually dropped by Water Defense, said later he had overstated the danger. In a column on Edward’s blog, he said his findings had been based on incorrect information he had received from scientists.

Asked what it was like to feel Edwards’ wrath, he allowed it wasn’t pleasant.

“It is impossible for me to find the right words to express the stress and disruption in my life,” he said.

For Edwards, the takedown of Smith came with a price.

Smith had been tightly aligned with several activists, who, instead of getting mad about his mistakes, turned against Edwards, accusing him of betraying them.

Marc Edwards with his student team assembling water test kits that will be sent to Flint, MI for residents to test their water for lead.

How tainted is Flint's water?

In 2016 FACHEP was hired by the state to learn whether the switch to the Flint River had caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The outbreak of the respiratory disease in 2014 and 2015 led to 12 deaths and the sickening of 79 others. 

Two story lines began to emerge in Flint.

Virginia Tech continued to test the water, which began to fall below the federal standards for lead of 15 parts per billion. But FACHEP said its preliminary research showed the water might be compromised in other ways, that different pathogens might be present.

Edwards felt FACHEP was needlessly scaring people by raising issues before its research was complete.

But activists liked what they were hearing from the new research team. Residents said they were still experiencing health problems, rashes, hair loss.

They felt Edwards had stopped listening to them. When they heard him say the water was getting better, they heard a faint echo of what government officials had said in 2014.

“The water is still sick. We’re still sick,” said Claire McClinton, a union and water activist from Flint.

Some residents accused Edwards of being a sellout because Virginia Tech received $120,000 from the EPA to retest homes for lead three times. He began receiving death threats.

The famous scientist was slowly turning from the savior of Flint to a pariah.

Among those joining the chorus against Edwards were members of FACHEP.

They suggested he and the state were hiding the danger of bacteria collecting on water filters. Some residents believed it was Shigella, a bacteria that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. 

In May 2017 FACHEP worker Quincy Murphy confronted Edwards at a town hall meeting, accusing him of lying about the safety of the filters.

That same month, Laura Sullivan, a FACHEP liaison to the community, wrote on Facebook the group was being prevented from disclosing the dangers of the bacteria.

“We don’t need self-proclaimed heroes to judge our water safe by discrediting the work of others,” wrote Sullivan, “or to fan the flames of our mistrust, or to use media influence to effectively cut us off from resources.”

Edwards and Eden Wells, Michigan's then-chief medical executive, asked FACHEP leader Shawn McElmurry to quash the rumors, according to emails shared by Edwards. But McElmurry said the FACHEP members were speaking as Flint residents, not as representatives of the group.

Edwards had had enough.

For months Sullivan, a materials engineer at Kettering University, had been criticizing him on social media, saying he was lying, had been bought, was obsessed with money and fame.

Edwards gave McElmurry an ultimatum: Disavow the statements by the FACHEP members by the following week or Edwards would take matters into his own hands, according to a copy of the email.

“My team will no longer be your scapegoat,” he wrote in a May 2017 email. “I intend to correct the record publicly for you. I will do that to the utmost of my abilities.”

When McElmurry still refused to act, Edwards went to the ramparts, which, in his case, meant the Freedom of Information Act.

He launched a massive public records request for water-related emails of McElmurry and three other FACHEP leaders.

Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards speaks during a press conference for release of data from Flint Water Study re-testing of Flint, Michigan homes for lead in water.

State: Expert's record exaggerated

In 2018, Edwards filed an ethics complaint with the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. He said McElmurry had been duplicitous in applying for the federal grant that funded his group’s work in Flint.

McElmurry had claimed to work in Flint five years before the grant application in 2015 and that, as a result of the work, had a model of the city water system, Edwards said. Neither of those things were true, he said.

“McElmurry may be guilty of perpetrating one of the most insidious cases of scientific misconduct ever in relation to procurement of disaster relief research funding,” Edwards wrote on his blog in March 2018.

A LARA investigation determined McElmurry had exaggerated his prior experience in Flint. In fact, the state agency's report said it didn’t find any evidence of McElmurry having worked on Flint water.

The agency also said McElmurry had failed to give Faust credit when using her hydraulic model and other research when applying for the federal grant.

“McElmurry’s overstated involvement in the city of Flint water system definitely bordered on being dishonest,” wrote Charles Hookham, a member of the state Board of Professional Engineers.

But the offense didn’t amount to a violation of the Michigan occupational code, Hookham ruled in March. No action was taken against McElmurry.

But the matter may not be over.

Edwards, who continues to receive information from his public records requests, plans to file additional documents with LARA to show that McElmurry has allegedly done this type of thing before.

McElmurry, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Wayne State, said he was heartened by LARA’s decision. Without mentioning Edwards by name, he said it was unfortunate that he and FACHEP continue to be unfairly criticized.

“It is critical that the public trust our work,” he said in a statement. “Unsubstantiated accusations against researchers or members of the community do not help advance scientific understanding.”

Public letters criticize Edwards

In May 2018 a letter was sent to several science and engineering organizations asking them to investigate Edwards.

The missive, signed by 62 Flint residents, criticized Edwards for attacking FACHEP. It described him as an egotistical bully whose disputes didn’t help residents and only created strife.

“Residents of Flint object to Mr. Edwards fighting his own petty and vicious fights against anyone and everyone he sees as a challenger or competitor,” reads the letter. “The complaint (Edwards filed against McElmurry) should be titled ‘Marc Edwards vs. Whomever He Chooses.’”

When the letter failed to attract much attention, a second one was posted online two months later. This one, signed by 10 social science professors, supported the right of the Flint residents to speak out.

Edwards believed he recognized FACHEP’s fingerprints on the letters.

He tried to obtain emails between Pauli, the FACHEP community liaison, and a professor from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, but the school refused to release them. He appealed the decision, which required NJIT to give a general description of the withheld messages.

Among the topics of the emails, which began in March 2018, were the possibility of Pauli filing a complaint against Edwards, a letter drafted by Pauli in response to Edwards’ criticism of FACHEP, and a proposed letter that Pauli would send to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The association was among the groups that received the residents’ letter.

The topic of another Pauli email was a meeting in Washington proposed for May 9 2018, one day before the letter was mailed.

Pauli also tried to recruit academics to sign the second letter, according to emails Edwards obtained.

In one email, Pauli asked signers of the second letter to speak to the media but said he wanted to keep a low profile. He didn’t sign the letter.

“It might look like I’m the spokesman for the letter, which is something we absolutely must avoid if we want this thing to have its intended impact,” he wrote in a July 2018 email.

Contacted by The News, Pauli said he and others wrote the second letter but wouldn’t say whether he penned the first.

He said the more important issue was the fact that so many residents had signed it.

“The authorship is not what matters,” he said. “What matters is what the letter says. That’s where the focus should be.”

Lee-Anne Walters, Miguel Del Toral, Mona Hanna-Attisha and Marc Edwards, all instrumental in bringing the Flint water crisis to light,  pose for a photo in Grand Blanc outside Flint, MI, Friday, March 11, 2016.

Legal battle with activists

In July 2018, Edwards filed a lawsuit that accused three former allies of leading a two-year campaign to destroy his reputation. They had criticized him in conversations, emails, interviews and social media.

The three were Melissa Mays, an activist leader in Flint, and Paul Schwartz and Yanna Lambrinidou, water activists in Washington.

All three had signed the 2018 letter, which, along with residents’ names, included the names of 39 nonresidents.

Mays had been tightly aligned with Water Defense, actor Mark Ruffalo's environmental group, which had been criticized by Edwards.

Schwartz, who worked closely with Edwards in Washington, feels he sometimes co-opts the role of residents, being both scientist and activist. He believes Edwards too eagerly embraces the limelight to the exclusion of residents and their role in overcoming adversity.

“The narrative (of a heroic Edwards) doesn’t get at the complexities of what happened,” said Schwartz. “What is the role of the people who were hurt? What is the story of their mobilization and work?”

Edwards used the lawsuit to level accusations against the defendants.

He said Mays told him she had manipulated a Virginia Tech test kit in 2016 to overstate the amount of lead in her water. Mays, who had a lawsuit pending against the state, announced the skewed results to the media, according to the lawsuit.

Edwards provided a copy of the falsified results to the EPA, he said.

Bill Moran, who represented Mays in the lawsuit, said the judge’s decision to dismiss the case showed he found the accusation either irrelevant or not credible.

“I do not pretend I’m smarter than a federal judge. Do you?” said Moran.

The lawsuit also suggested Lambrinidou, an anthropologist, had turned against Edwards after he rejected what he believed were romantic advances in 2013.

Lambrinidou denied she ever made a romantic advance.

"This allegation is false, cowardly, and built on doctored evidence," she said.

Lambrinidou also emphasized that Edwards contradicted himself in an Oct. 1, 2013 email to her, in which he said: "Just so there is no misunderstanding on one point. I have never thought or implied you were on a quest for an affair." 

Edwards said he made the comment to placate her.

Subsequently, in a 2016 message to a friend, she said she was disgusted with the praise surrounding Edwards' work in Flint.

“The injustice of it all, the exploitation, the abuse and the national narrative of celebration and heroism is eating me up alive,” she wrote. “It’s like looking at your rapist get the Nobel Prize for gender equality.”

Lambrinidou said her displeasure with Edwards stemmed from the way he usurped the role that residents played in their recovery from the water crisis.

In March, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski said the Flint residents’ letter was protected by the First Amendment because it was commentary about a public controversy.

In a joint statement, the three defendants said they were happy the legal action was no longer hanging over their head.

They said Edwards had filed the lawsuit, which asked for $3 million in damages, to silence them through intimidation. They said they will not remain silent.

“We will not stop speaking our truth,” they said. “We will not stop fighting for environmental justice, and we will not let anyone else silence the strength, expertise, and passion of affected communities or their allies again.”

Edwards said he doesn’t plan to be quiet either.

“I’m not going anywhere, OK?” he said. “I’m going to do my duty, continue to speak the truth. There’s a market for that because so few people are doing it. There’s no one else like me.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell