Feature

Our Hero in Flint

Story by Tom Nugent and Laura Silverman | Photographs by Logan Wallace courtesy of Virginia Tech

When civil engineer Marc Edwards (BS ’86) warned Michigan state officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that lead-contaminated drinking water was poisoning the children of Flint, he expected them to declare an emergency. Instead, the regulators insisted there was no cause for alarm. That’s when Edwards, now frequently described as “The Hero of Flint,” realized he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Marc Edwards by the Flint River in downtown Flint, Mich.

Marc Edwards by the Flint River in downtown Flint, Mich.

“Terrible things can take place when ‘bad science’ is allowed to shape policies and decisions affecting the public good.”
Marc Edwards (BS ’86)

IT BEGAN QUIETLY enough one day in April 2015, when civil engineering professor Marc Edwards’ phone rang at his office on the campus of Virginia Tech.

But this wasn’t a standard call about pipe leaks or sewage treatment methods. The call was from LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four in Flint, Mich. Edwards, 52, listened carefully as Walters described brownish tap water that smelled terrible; family members with thinning hair, rashes and abdominal pain; and frustrating assurances from state and local officials—whom she had repeatedly notified about her troubling water—that it was safe.

“Oh no,” Edwards recalls thinking. “Here we go again.”

About a decade earlier, Edwards began his rise to national recognition when he discovered that the water supply in Washington, D.C., was contaminated with lead from corroded pipes, and that thousands of children were ingesting the potent neurotoxin. Edwards reported his findings to the authorities, including the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but nothing happened. In fact, the CDC issued a report downplaying the health risk. So Edwards spent the next six years and thousands of dollars of his own money (including a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” he won in 2007) working to expose the truth and the surrounding cover-up. Finally, in 2010, a congressional hearing concluded that the CDC report was “scientifically indefensible.” The public was outraged, and Edwards’ reputation as a dogged researcher willing to take on some of the country’s most entrenched and powerful regulatory agencies was sealed.

EDWARDS GREW UP in and around Ripley, N.Y., a speck of a farm town on Lake Erie about 70 miles southwest of Buffalo. The son of a schoolteacher and a stay-at-home mom, he attended a one-building K-12 country school; as a teenager, he worked in the fields alongside immigrant farmhands. These humble beginnings, he says, were instru