BLACKSBURG — Members of the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study team get a lot of questions.
They come from family, friends and more than two dozen media requests daily in recent weeks for the team’s leader, professor Marc Edwards, a nationally known expert on municipal water quality.
How much lead is in the water in Flint? What’s the risk to the public? How does it feel to have the president and a governor address your research?
The group of 25 researchers from Blacksburg traveled to Michigan four times to analyze the tap water and then worked to make their findings public after they were ignored by government agencies. The work has resulted in national attention on water infrastructure, a state of emergency, resignations and a switch back to an old water system.
The team spent almost $150,000 of Edwards’ discretionary research funds he earned from consulting and his personal money.
One question is pressed over and over: Why did you take on this work?
“We did it because it was the morally right thing to do,” said Siddhartha Roy, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering. “We couldn’t just stand on the side and watch most of the people in a city get lead poisoning.
“The motivation of doing the right thing is very strong in the entire crew.”
The Flint situation emerged and then gushed out into a national story because of the Tech team’s water testing.
One Michigan doctor’s work shows that in some areas of Flint the amount of lead in children’s blood has doubled or even tripled since 2014.
Late last week, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration and ordered aid from Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. The declaration came after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city Jan. 5.
But according to Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter working with the ACLU of Michigan, without the work of the Virginia Tech researchers, “the world would not be talking about lead poisoning in Flint.”
Through the team’s tireless work hosting news conferences, updating a website with Flint information and doing actual water testing, they were able to get the attention of the general public and the national media, Guyette said. And with attention came new work from some leaders and resignations from government bureaucrats.
Flint’s water had been contaminated with lead since 2014 when the city began getting its water from the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure. The water was then not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from running through residents’ taps. It has also been revealed that the water issues also could have caused a high number of Legionnaires’ disease cases — including nine fatalities, Edwards said — in Flint.
Between that time and January 2015, city officials issued boil orders because of coliform bacteria problems. At that point Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system, but local officials publicly said they didn’t believe there was an issue.
Problems persisted and the city and state put several million dollars toward fixing their water system. However, state and federal agencies continued to deny the problem.
In April, Virginia Tech’s Edwards received a water sample from Flint resident LeeAnne Walters that had extreme levels of lead in it — twice the level of lead that would normally be considered hazardous waste. Walters sent the sample to Edwards after Edwards was recommended by a source with the Michigan EPA office. From that point Edwards said he was determined to do further work in Flint.
The team ended up making four sampling and public relations trips to Flint between early August and December of last year. They also sent out 300 home testing kits — 276 of which have been returned, researchers said.
Over that period they tested 20 homes and businesses and took more than 100 samples from large buildings.
Those trips involved members of the team piling into a van, making a more than 500-mile trip and going into local homes, said Min Tang, a doctoral candidate who is working on the team.
Because of the proximity of their labs and field work they’d done together, the group was already close before the trip, Tang said. But days together gathering samples and grabbing dinner after a long day have strengthened the group’s bonds and their resolve.
“After this thing we’re getting even closer,” she said.
By late August , when Virginia Tech researchers first publicly raised their concerns, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said that what was happening in Flint wasn’t a big deal.
Emails between government officials released to Edwards and Guyette through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that officials worked together to make sure testing would come back to rule that water was safe under EPA guidelines in Flint, Guyette said.
The cover-up and the work government officials did to pass the buck for the blame is unprecedented in recent Michigan history, said Guyette, who worked at a Detroit alternative weekly newspaper for 18 years.
As Tech researchers released their Flint water system findings — which contradicted those of the DEQ and EPA — they were ridiculed by the environmental agencies. Researchers said it was difficult to be ignored.
“We didn’t understand their response,” Roy said. “I was mad. … To be antagonistic is wrong.”
Roy said that the key was to simply just keep plugging along doing research so that the numbers and science could eventually speak for itself.
“We realized this was something we couldn’t do anything to prevent,” Roy added. “We could just focus on the work and make sure our work and everything we say was genuine and things would get back in place.”
For Edwards, the lack of response wasn’t surprising because of extensive work he did in Washington, D.C., to fight an identical water crisis there between 2001 and 2004.
Since that time, Edwards said, he’s been working to warn officials at the EPA that a situation like Flint would happen.
“I wrote them a letter that said another Washington, D.C., was going to happen again unless you guys do your job,” Edwards said. “It was frustrating when it did [happen again in Flint].”
But, he said, those pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead of cracking down on water utilities around the nation, Edwards said the agency would often let utilities “cheat” in how they monitor lead in drinking water.
After the Tech researchers were vindicated by actions from Michigan’s state government and the president, they didn’t find a lot of solace in it, Roy said.
They were happy that actions were finally being taken in the case, but that doesn’t really prevent children from being ravished with the effects of lead poisoning, Edwards said.
“I’m relieved that the kids are now protected,” Edwards said. “It’s a little too little too late. But I hope we can learn from this mistake. I like to tell the team we did the job we were born to do.”
The website the team has designed to inform the public — www.flintwaterstudy.org — along with extensive media coverage means that people are very more aware of water quality issues than they were before.
The site alone has done a good job of keeping people in Flint informed, according to ACLU of Michigan’s Guyette. The researchers have done a good job of making the science digestible for everyday folks in Flint, he said.
“If it were up to me, the Flint Water Study website would win the Pulitzer Prize,” Guyette said.
Members of the Virginia Tech team have done interviews with numerous national outlets and appeared on national broadcast shows, while fielding more than two dozen interviews a day since the Michigan governor declared a state of emergency.
The work has come at the cost of taking away time from other research projects.
Otto Schwake, a post-doctoral associate with the project, said he’s also currently working on projects in Florida and Louisiana.
Other research might not get national press or attention from politicians, but it still has great value to society, Schwake said.
“All projects are important,” Schwake said. “Just because the media is covering it it doesn’t make it any less or more important than anything we do.”
Even though much of the work for Tech researchers is done in Flint, as public policy leaders make systematic changes, Tang said the scientists will still make one more trip.
It’s imperative that they check up and make sure folks are safe by testing the water under the new system, which was really a return to taking in Detroit’s water.
Overall, Edwards is satisfied with the result and proud of the work his team put in. He said he sees lots of hope for the future in the VT students who worked on the project.
“They’re the reason I keep doing this and they give me hope for the future,” he said.
In a class based on his D.C. experiences — co-taught with adjunct assistant professor Yanna Lambrinidou — Edwards tries to teach students that they can have an influence on the engineering future and not lose their humanity.
After all, the things engineers design have an effect on people and that can’t be forgotten just because scientists are in a sterile lab, he said.
But it was a group of fourth-graders the team worked with in Flint that gave him the most hope. Edwards took in water samples to a class for lead testing and explained the situation to the youngsters.
They could plainly see lead in Flint water after running some tests.
At that point one of the students looked up at Edwards and made a statement that’s stuck with him and gives him more hope for future generations of scientists.
The boy clearly understood the effect so much lead in water from his neighborhood would have on the reputation of the government’s environmental protection agencies who’d been players in Flint.
“You opened up a can of scientific whoop-a-- on them,” Edwards recalled the boy saying with a grin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.