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Marc Edwards is the only person in the Flint water crisis who doesn’t have a horse in the race. He has no political agenda. The Virginia Tech researcher, who first tested Flint’s water and tried to call attention to its dangers, isn’t even from Michigan.

That makes him unique among the key players involved, and it makes what he has to say about it more powerful.

Edwards has had a consistent message since he first revealed the problems with Flint water, which is simply that he wants to see federal agencies actually enforce federal laws on safe drinking water.

His most visible target has been the Environmental Protection Agency. And his most centered critique is of a bureaucratic culture that is callously indifferent to the people it serves.

He expressed many of those same sentiments to me in an interview this week.

“Flint is on (the EPA’s) hands because of its failure to follow and enforce the law,” he said. “These agencies are paid — and paid well — to do this job. And I think they are equipped to do it.”

To Edwards, it seems to be more a question of whether federal agencies have the moral impetus to do the job. He says they don’t.

“Personally, what I’m most concerned about is the trustworthiness of these agencies,” he said.

Flint wasn’t the first time Edwards has had to hold the federal government to task for overlooking lead in a community’s water. He did the same for Washington, D.C., a decade ago, when the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control failed to act to protect residents.

“At the EPA and the CDC at the top levels, they have no integrity and no ethics. I saw that first hand in dealing with them from 2005 to today,” he said. “I wrote them a letter where I called them out for being at a meeting where someone talked about cheating on (the) lead and copper (rule). I put it in an email. They did nothing. Seems to me you don’t care about kids being poisoned from lead if that’s the case.”

He has taken on the former Midwest EPA chief Susan Hedman directly for burying information about Flint’s situation for months, and did so publicly in Tuesday’s congressional hearing.

It’s a kind of brutal honesty rarely heard in the refined halls of Congress, where Edwards has testified now several times. His immunity to the votes, money and influence elected leaders and political appointees crave makes him a determined force. And it’s easy to tell and refreshing that he’s an outsider who really doesn’t care if there are repercussions to him for what he says.

“Flint strikes such a chord because the betrayal is so fundamental,” Edwards said. “You almost think these agencies are inhuman. And I’m a huge believer in their missions, but until we change the attitude at the top and make sure ethical people with integrity are making decisions, no one’s kids are safe.”

Edwards says he doesn’t ever think Flint residents will again trust their water, and that they have every reason not to.

“You don’t want to be burned again,” he said. “It’s unreasonable after this horrible betrayal to expect people to trust the water, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to make it meet federal standards.”

That cause will continue to fuel his fight for safe drinking water, and a regulatory system that’s accountable for it.

“People say ‘How could this happen?’” Edwards said. “But I look at how (these agencies) function and what they value, and I say, ‘How can you expect anything different?’ If they fail us on something as black and white as brown water, how can you trust them on any other issue? My answer is you can’t.”

kbuss@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @KaitlynBuss

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