By Jan Worth-Nelson
Note: This piece was updated Saturday evening, June 2, to add several paragraphs from flintwaterstudy.com’s response to the flintcomplaints.com letter, received after the article was originally written.
A Virginia Polytechnic Institute professor who emerged in 2015 as one of the heroes of the Flint Water Crisis, Marc Edwards, is now being bitterly called to account by a Who’s Who of activists in the city that put him in the national spotlight. The subsequent response from Edwards, counter-attacking in response to a May 10 letter, suggests that some of the wrenching interpersonal aftereffects of the water crisis — and questions about the role of citizen activists and whose science to believe — are far from subsiding.
The letter has appeared on a website forwarded to East Village Magazine called “FlintComplaints.com.” It is addressed to “the scientific and engineering communities,” beginning as follows:
“Residents of Flint request you tell us where we can file a formal complaint against the behavior, since January 2016, of Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. We also request that you send representatives to Flint as soon as possible for a meeting with us to hear directly from us about our experiences with Mr. Edwards and our call for an investigation into Mr. Edwards’ conduct and the harm his actions have caused. ”
The letter is organized around four points, asserting that in recent attacks on Wayne State Professor Shawn McElmurry and the Flint Area Community Health and Environmental Partnership (FACHEP) and on other matters, Edwards claimed to speak for the people of Flint when, according to the letter writers, he did not.
The letter accuses Edwards of obstructing Flint’s right for self-determination, “unsubstantiated defamation of Flint residents” and using his power over “powerless residents.”
“Flint residents have their own voice and have never asked Mr. Edwards to speak for us,” the letter states, “let alone take official action using our names instead of his own.”
Here is the heart of the complaint:
“It should be obvious by now to anyone paying attention that Mr. Edwards’ claims that he represents “the people of Flint” or works ‘with Flint residents’ are hollow. Those who haven’t figured this out yet should ask themselves why it is that Mr. Edwards’ only evidence of working with ‘the residents’ is a tired show of the same group of 2-3 individuals who are embedded with Mr. Edwards and loyal to him. The reality is that the majority of Flint residents who initially brought Mr. Edwards into Flint and worked with him now have distanced themselves from him. Many of these residents feel that Mr. Edwards’ drama, changes in stance, and attacks on residents and researchers have ended up taking Flint residents’ voice away and giving it to Mr. Edwards. This has allowed Mr. Edwards to make Flint’s Water Crisis about himself and not the people.”
Contacted by East Village Magazine, Edwards responded, “If even a fraction of these false allegations were true, I would have signed it myself.” He said he is “kind of relieved” the accusations have gone public, “where it can be addressed head on, instead of the rumor and innuendo that my students and I have been subjected to.”
A blog post which Edwards called to say details his and his team’s response to the letter was posted this afternoon here.
Here is one key paragraph:
..As anyone following Flintwaterstudy or the Flint Water Crisis knows, unfortunately, the hundreds of millions of dollars and all the lawsuits and media attention, brought something else to Flint. We have documented how numerous unethical opportunists (see here, here, here, and here) descended on the city starting in late 2015, to exploit the tragedy to their own advantage. The media spotlight and the possible large financial rewards also played a powerful corrupting role. Unfortunately, when bad science was deployed by these groups in a manner that could compromise public health, they became “part of the problem” and we made the difficult decision to call them out. This was particularly painful in some cases, because some of those formerly allied with us in exposing the agency corruption and misconduct during the water crisis, have remained in full-blown and full-time attack mode even after the Federal Emergency—a few of these individuals have now become dedicated adversaries of Flintwaterstudy and Dr. Marc Edwards.
Another paragraph notes what Edwards describes as the difference between “Citizen scientists” (he cites LeeAnne Walters as a sterling example) and “Citizen engineers,” which he describes as “on the other side,”
…followers and practitioners of an emerging philosophy of “Citizen Engineering,” first defined by Purdue University Dean Dr. Donna Riley and effectively put into practice in Flint by her colleague Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou. Citizen engineering involves a process by which:
“community members (“non-experts”) identify scientific questions …sometimes but not always with the cooperation of trained scientists,” with “…the disruption of engineering expertise is a central goal….”
This goal of disrupting engineering expertise complements Dr. Riley and colleagues plea to get rid of the concept of “rigor” entirely in science and engineering to uphold “social justice” and eliminate “the profession’s tendency to marginalize, ignore, silence,…<l>ocal knowledges and scientific counter-knowledges that depart from dominant paradigms of engineering thought and practice.”
Edwards asserted the flintcomplaints.com letter had been written, and primarily represented the views of water activist Melissa Mays, though he said it is not all about her.
“This is about an attack on expertise,” Edwards said in a phone call today. When his detractors — some of whom he said were from academia — “started to attack our engineering expertise, it all went off the rails.”
He said “It’s a different world view, entirely — what we’ve been calling science anarchy, a populist, anti-elite movement that’s affected all our institutions. This is a new battlefield in a war over science, instigated by professors. This is coming from academia, spurred on by people who are not engineers.”
Ben Pauli, an assistant professor at Kettering University who has been closely associated with both the water activism and the FACHEP group, argued, “Anyone who has paid even a little attention to the controversies over science and expertise in Flint knows that many residents have had concerns about Dr. Edwards’ messaging and behavior for some time now.
“Whenever those concerns are expressed, Dr. Edwards’ default response, it seems, is to explain them away by blaming them on a small band of allegedly unreasonable and unfair activists who are supposedly out to get him, or on “unscrupulous” researchers who are supposedly spreading fear and anxiety,” Pauli added. ” I have yet to hear him take any responsibility for the discontent he has created–it always seems to be someone else’s fault.”
Edwards said he is reaching out to the signatories to see if they actually agree, word-for-word, with all of the letter’s contentions.
Mays initially worked closely with Edwards but clashed with him and his team beginning in 2016 when she allied with the work of Scott Smith of an environmental group supported by actor Mark Ruffalo called Water Defense. Smith arrived in town with a supply of sponges called “Water Defense Waterbugs” and warned residents of dangers from showering in the water that was presumed by then to be tainted with lead.
Though Smith’s message, like Edwards’, was that the water was compromised, Edwards denounced Smith’s science, calling him a “Hollywood fraud” and posted a blog headlined: “A-list actor but F-list scientist: Mark Ruffalo brings fear and misinformation to Flint.”
Edwards said he and water activist LeeAnne Walters “had to report Ms. Mays to EPA Region V in April 2017 for violating the EPA and VT testing protocol, and then using that information in the national media.” Edwards and Walters continue on good terms.
Edwards said he has evidence Mays “used the falsified lead result to claim she deserved a priority service line replacement.”
[In an email to EVM after this article first appeared,, Walters said said she still lives in Flint and has since 2011, and did not move to Virginia as was first reported. She said “I have been dealing with this particular lie for awhile and have had to have it corrected too many times to count because of a certain individual. I did not move to Virginia, my husband is stationed there. I visit my husband two weeks out of the month and live in my house in Flint two weeks out of the month and have done so since Oct 2015.”]
Here is another paragraph from the flint complaints.com letter:
Obstruction of Flint’s right for self-determination: 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, and against anyone and everyone Flint residents turn to for help other than himself, all under the guise of “protecting” and “saving” us, or “defending” science. This is dishonest, paternalistic and exploitative and, we fear, used by Mr. Edwards to build his own professional and financial power. It also violates the most basic right that we have for self-determination. The allegations listed in Mr. Edwards’ latest complaint against Mr. McElmurry are eerily similar to previous attacks by Mr. Edwards on affected Flint residents, journalists, attorneys, as well as other researchers and groups that may not share Mr. Edwards’ opinion about the Flint Water Crisis recovery stage. Far too many residents in Flint are exhausted from Mr. Edwards’ bullying, his claims to be the “humanitarian” who so “cares” for the people, and his Hollywood antics — this is not Entertainment Tonight. The sensational title of Mr. Edwards’ March 29, 2018 blog post alone suggests that Mr. Edwards is using our crisis and suffering for entertainment, intrigue, exhibitionism, and personal power that might attract the media and outside readers but are completely inappropriate for the circumstances. Many residents now fear the possibility that Mr. Edwards’ glib, reckless, and egotistical conduct may hamper the ongoing criminal investigation into the Legionnaires deaths in our city, which we see as the only form of justice we might achieve (http://michiganradio.org/post/scientific-disagreements-could-affect-special-prosecutor-s-case-flint-water-crisis.) This additional and totally undeserved worry suddenly adds to the stress and chaos we already feel.
At the start of the water crisis, Edwards’ arrival, subsequent work and fiery outrage about the situation, were welcomed and heralded. He brought student teams to Flint to conduct independent water testing which became powerful evidence propelling action by the state; He testified before Congress, especially lambasting what he asserted were failures by the Environmental Protection Agency. He enlisted the help of many residents, and journalists, including me, began to tout the evolution of these “citizen scientists.”
In a November, 2015, interview with East Village Magazine, LeeAnne Walters described how in the chaos and confusion following the April, 2014 switch to Flint River water she approached Edwards to come to Flint to help make sense of the problems she and her family and neighbors were experiencing. When he called to say he would come, she said, “I cried.”
“I was happy,” she said. “I was relieved. Nobody else was helping. So to figure out a way to get help, and to be taken seriously and to prove when we’ve been saying for months and months and months was going to be brought to light. It was a relief.”
Walters at the time was working with Mays; the two Flint mothers had founded the advocacy group Water You Fighting For. But in the years since, the two have parted ways and are reportedly no longer speaking. Walters, who recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, which carried a $200,000 award, continues to support and work with Edwards, but Mays was among those who signed onto the flintcomplaints.com letter. Mays was central in a major accomplishment of her own–as part of a class action lawsuit filed with the ACLU and the Concerned Pastors for Social Action that in its settlement required the State of Michigan to devote $100 million to pipe replacement and door-to-door filter deliveries in the city.
In an appearance in 2017 at the premier of the NOVA documentary on the water crisis, Edwards said “America owes Flint a huge debt of gratitude.
He said that was because, “in the aftermath we’ve discovered problems all around the country, especially in our poorer communities. Almost the only thing unusual about Flint is that we caught the problem and we got kids protected before even worse harm was done. We owe the same opportunity and outcome to other poor Americans as well.”
But Edwards began clashing with Flint activists and other researchers–particularly the group known as FACHEP, led by McElmurry, who were investigating the spike in Legionnaires’ Disease during the summer of 2015 when the water crisis was at its peak. Eventually, the FACHEP researchers published two peer-reviewed research papers asserting the emergence of the bacteria had been strongly correlated with Flint’s water, specifically variations in the levels of chlorine that had been added in early water treatment strategies.
[In an email in response to this article, Edwards wrote: “Please note that Virginia Tech published two papers on the emergence of Legionairres disease in Flint, years before FACHEP. The article implies FACHEP published on this first. We are the group that proved the Legionella outbreak was tied to Flint River water, not FACHEP.”]
[Maya Trotz, president-elect of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors and a University of South Florida associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, provided this link to a paper published by William Rhoads and seven others, including Edwards, in August, 2017, five months before FACHEP’s papers appeared. She also offered this link and this link for other Flint/Legionella studies.]
On his website, FlintWaterStudy.org, Edwards accused McElmurry of fabricating his qualifications, and said there were “wild inconsistencies” in McElmurry’s statements under oath in the involuntary manslaughter prosecution cases underway of Nick Lyons, Michigan Director of Health and Human Services, and Eden Wells, the State’s chief medical officer. He accused others on the research team of “gorging on the FACHEP funding trough” and 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.”
In April, Wayne State issued a response, characterizing Edwards’ posts as “unacceptable, inappropriate and vitriolic personal attacks on an individual faculty member. We feel it is necessary to defend our faculty member against these personal attacks.Dr. McElmurry is a committed scientist and educator, and an academician of the highest character. We have the utmost respect for the commitment and character of Dr. McElmurry and the FACHEP research team.”
Activists contacted for background on the letter said origins of the FlintComplaints.com letter “are being strategically cloaked a little bit because the idea is to avoid its being associated too closely with any one individual or individuals.” but that “multiple local activists were involved.”
In a section labeled “Unsubstantiated defamation of Flint residents,” the letter reads:
“Mr. Edwards’ portrayal of Flint residents as dumb, dirty and vulnerable to being misled by anyone other than himself started in early 2016, is ongoing, and is misguided and offensive, because:
a) WE, Flint residents, are the ones who discovered our water’s contamination months before we brought Mr. Edwards in our city. Also, despite Mr. Edwards’ claim to the contrary, WE are the ones who have always led and continue to lead the activism on the ground. In reality, Mr. Edwards’ work wouldn’t be possible without US.
b) Contrary to Mr. Edwards’ claims, Flint residents were never told that shigella was in our tap water and, as a whole, never stopped using proper hygiene from fear of the water. The allegation that FACHEP announced that they found shigella in Flint water is a lie. The allegation that WE caused our own shigella outbreak because we stopped bathing out of fear of the water, is also a lie. The CDC showed, and presented to Flint residents, that the shigella outbreak was NOT due to residents not bathing. But Mr. Edwards never retracted his false statements. We (of course) bathe, which is why we have been saying that the problems with our water are not over. It is BECAUSE we bathe that we experience rashes, breathing problems in the shower and more. Contrary to Mr. Edwards’ claims, we WANT science that addresses our questions, experiences and needs. Science has NEVER scared us. What scares us is Mr. Edwards who uses his position as a scientist to misrepresent us and silence us.”
One person involved with the water crisis said that at the beginning, “For the activists, Flint was never about lead. It was about bad water. Marc Edwards made it about lead because that was the story he wanted to tell.” That mind-boggling assertion, along with a recent decision by Hurley Medical Center doctors to no longer call children involved in the crisis “lead-poisoned” but rather “lead exposed,” has left those following the story, not to mention residents worried about their children, wondering what actually happened and whom to trust.
[Edwards’s statement on the Hurley brouhaha, to ABC-12, was “No one is making false statements. I feel some children were poisoned, but when referring to the average child, and the typical exposure that occurred, it is irresponsible to refer to that case as lead poisoned or permanently brain damaged.”]
The flintcomplaints.com letter appears to have been signed so far by 50 people, most of whom identified themselves simply as “Flint resident,” though some said “Flint parent,” or “Flint worker.” But many of the names would be familiar to anyone following the crisis–those who have been intimately involved as activists and protestors. It was signed by Mays, as well as Kettering University engineering professor Laura Sullivan, a member of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee appointed by the governor. The Rev. Dan Scheid, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also was listed among the signers.
Sullivan is among those Edwards for his part has been attacking on his website, FlintWaterStudy.org. She drew his ire, it appears, because she was associated with the McElmurry Wayne State group, FACHEP, investigating the Legionnaire’s spike in the summer of 2015. That spike ended with the deaths of at least 12 people.
[In an email in response to this article, Edwards wrote: “Dr. Sullivan (FACHEP) was attacking us for 8 months on facebook, before we ever went public with any of our concerns about FACHEP. I can provide proof. We tried to get her unprofessional attacks to stop. FACHEP refused to do it. We then had no choice. I was actually getting threats because of Dr. Sullivan’s emails and false claims by FACHEP that I was blocking their work.”]
Non-Flint residents who signed on “to support” the flintcomplaints.com letter include Colette Metcalfe, representing Clean Water for Flint; Robert Miranda from the Freshwater for Life Coalition, Yanna Lambrinidou from the Campaign for Lead-free Water; Francisco Tobacco of the Lakota Tribe, Julian Rodriquez, Jr. of the Pala Tribe, and Joye Braun from the Indigenous Environmental Network.
In the concluding paragraph of Edwards’ response to flintcomplaints.com, he writes,
“As for the question of oversight, we wonder aloud: “Who is examining the honesty and integrity of the words and actions of Dr. Riley, Dr. Lambrinidou, Dr. Sullivan and Dr. McElmurry?” And, “Who will correct the many false claims made in the Flintcomplaint letter, as detailed herein, sent to numerous professional engineering organizations, and now to the world? Afterall, it is their Citizen Engineering that has the explicitly stated goal of disrupting expertise and communities, and in Flint, they have been partly successful.”
The campaign against Edwards is the latest in a series of aftereffects of the four-year-old water crisis, which has roiled the city of 90,000 since a decision by an emergency manager in April 2014 to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River from Lake Huron and a subsequent lack of proper water treatment. When residents began complaining of dirty water, skin rashes and other symptoms, years of complicated responses occurred, familiar by now in a narrative that has become a nationally-deplored debacle.
Ultimately 15 people in local and state government have been indicted for various charges from falsifying data to involuntary manslaughter. The State of Michigan has spent close to $300 million on pipe replacements, health assistance, and economic recovery in the aftermath. The C.S. Mott Foundation has directed more than $100 million to recovery efforts, and in the glare of national publicity, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has received more than $18 million in donations from around the country and world.
But recently, though testing puts the city’s water quality at an EPA-determined safe level, events have left weary residents reeling from what feels like a a severe communal hangover, their trust in government officials decimated, silver filters on every faucet, free water deliveries from the state cut off, mounds of dirt on their streets where pipes have been replaced but the finish work still undone–wondering what really happened, and how the lead which leached from the pipes might still be affecting the city’s children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
And as the Hurley doctors asserted they would no longer refer to children who experienced the water crisis as “lead-poisoned,” but rather as “lead-exposed,” The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has challenged the findings of the Wayne State researchers about the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, and the state has just gone after two of the pipe replacement contractors, saying they spent $200,000 on changing pipes that did not need it.
Banner photo: Melissa Mays marching with Jesse Jackson in February, 2016, Flint. (Photo by Nic Custer)
Note: This piece was updated Saturday evening, June 2, to add several paragraphs from flintwaterstudy.com’s response to the flintcomplaints.com letter, received after the article was originally written.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.