COLUMBIA, SC A university professor credited with exposing last year’s drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., ripped government regulators and scientists Friday for what he called a reluctance to stand up for public health when they know a problem exists.
Speaking at the University of South Carolina, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards urged students not to develop what he called a complacent, retaliatory attitude like that found at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Flint crisis and during another drinking water issue in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s.
In both cases, high levels of lead washed into drinking water consumed by thousands of people, but federal and state regulators were reluctant for extended periods of time to admit problems existed, he told about 250 people, most of them students. Meanwhile, residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead, he said.
Edwards said the EPA often rewards regulators who shirk their responsibility, but punishes those who try to do the right thing. Following his address, Edwards said the agency has an attitude of not wanting to rock the boat.
“The one thing, it seems, that can get you fired from EPA is doing your job,’’ he said. “Good people get fired every day.’’ Edwards said that “when you do your job, you can get in trouble.’’
Edwards said one longtime EPA regulator attempted to blow the whistle in Flint, only to be muzzled and criticized. In addition to the EPA’s failure to heed the warnings, state regulators in Michigan tried to discredit the EPA official.
Edwards, a professor of civil engineering, has done extensive work through the years on lead in drinking water. After talking with a Flint resident and the EPA regulator, Edwards had water tested in the impoverished city. What the tests found were high lead levels that had exposed the public – and vulnerable children – to the poisonous metal.
The discovery informed people of a hazard that many knew nothing about. The problem occurred when Flint officials switched drinking water sources, but failed to treat the water to prevent metals from washing off of lead pipes.
Edwards, who is in his early 50s, urged Carolina students not to follow the example of his generation, which he said has been cowardly about exposing and addressing health and environmental problems. Many of the students attending Friday’s lecture are studying science and engineering.
“Do not let the world change you,’’ he said. “Do not forget the person you are today and that you want to do science and engineering to help the public. Never let people tell you you can’t do that, because we are counting on you. There’s no way you can outsource morality.’’
During a question-and-answer session with Carolina students, Edwards said another crisis like that in Flint could occur again. The Washington, D.C., lead problem didn’t stop the Flint issue from happening more than a decade later, he said. He said the nation’s lead and copper rule is rife with problems that give the public a false sense that their water is lead free, when sometimes it is not.
Poor government response to lead problems go beyond the EPA and the state of Michigan. In 2005, The State newspaper revealed that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had for 20 years failed to stop lead from polluting a poor community’s drinking water system southeast of Columbia. State regulators downplayed the problem before approving treatment to reduce lead in the water. About two dozen small systems in South Carolina have this year been found to have elevated lead in drinking water.
Edwards said government regulators aren’t the only ones unwilling to focus on public health and the environment above other considerations.
Academics and scientists sometimes don’t speak up about problems because they worry they could lose valuable research funding, Edwards said. He said one researcher even challenged his involvement in the Flint crisis, saying it wasn’t proper for an academic to take such a position because it could jeopardize funding.
“You are calling us out for what we did in Flint, Mich., because you’re worried about your precious research funding and there’s no cause just enough?’’ Edwards said, noting that the scientist told him “ ‘as a citizen I’m glad someone did something. I just don’t think it should have been an academic.’ ’’