“Failure is Not an Option Here:” An Interview With Marc Edwards

By Caitlin Moroney

October 14th, 2016

On October 14, 2016, Marc Edwards, Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at Virginia Tech University, visited the University of Chicago’s International House. Edwards exposed that the mismanagement of public water systems caused a 2004 lead poisoning outbreak in Washington, DC, as well as the more recent crisis in Flint, Michigan. He discussed his role in these events in his October 14 lecture, entitled, “Perspectives on Environmental Injustice in the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis.” This event was co-sponsored by the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the Global Voices Lecture Series.

Before the lecture, Global Voices Metcalf Fellow Caitlin Moroney spoke with Edwards about his work in exposing environmental injustice.

The Gate/Global Voices: Before Flint, you exposed lead in Washington, DC’s water supply. How was the 2004 crisis in DC similar to or different from the crisis in Flint?

Professor Marc Edwards: It’s like night and day. The DC lead crisis was about thirty times worse in terms of the amount of damage that was done to children. All of the government agencies that perpetrated that crime got away with it and even gave themselves awards. It wasn’t until six years of work and spending over one million dollars that I was able to expose the fact that thousands of children got poisoned by their own government. So it was a horrible journey for me, because I started out trusting government agencies, particularly civil servants, the scientists and engineers who are the environmental policemen, and in my wildest dreams I never thought they’d become environmental criminals like they were in DC. Even after it was exposed and Congress got involved and showed that everything I said was true, they never learned their lesson.

So I knew that Flint was going to happen, and we were preparing for the day when we’d have to fight our own government to rescue some Americans somewhere, and it just so happened to be in Flint.

Gate/Global Voices: Do you think it takes situations like this for the government to make the changes that are necessary to uphold clean water standards?

Edwards: I think people have to get fed up to the point that they’re out of their minds with anger. I wish I could say that we learned our lesson from Flint, but the reality is the EPA went down to Congress, to the hearings I was at, and lied under oath, and said that they had nothing to do with what happened in Flint, Michigan—when in my lecture I showed that they had everything to do with it. If our agencies are incapable of admitting their mistakes, incapable of feeling remorse, they’re going to repeat it. It’ll happen again, but probably the miracle of catching them is not going to happen. So we’re not there yet. Our government institutions are failing us at just an unbelievable rate. It doesn’t matter if it’s the EPA, the Center for Disease Control, or the Veterans’ Administration. We have no ability, it seems, to hold these agencies accountable to us, to serve us. And so this is a very sad commentary on the state of government in America right now.

Gate: Have you always been interested in the intersection of science, public policy, and public health, or did it take Flint and DC for you to discover that nexus?

Edwards: I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing today. I wanted to be an engineer; I grew up worshipping at the altar of science and engineering. I thought that [STEM] was the path to all knowledge. I even joked, and I wish I was joking, when I said “humanities were for losers.” But early on in [the DC crisis], I realized the problem was that science and engineering are done by humans. And that’s our weak point. So I had to get a game—not just up my game, get a game—and figure out how to get involved with policy, how to expose wrongdoing. I had to become part investigative reporter, part scientist, part activist. I had to learn all that the hard way. Thankfully, by the time Flint came, we had it down pretty good. The miracle that happened was that all of these people stood up and helped expose what was going on in Flint, what was happening to the city, and we got kids protected. That was a lot more satisfying than DC, where we just exposed after the fact that so much harm was done—irreparable harm—and no one ever said they were sorry. Those families in DC never got a penny for what the government did to them. And again, it’s civil servants, it’s scientists and engineers, [who are to blame]. Most people think this is so bad that politicians must have had something to do with it. They didn’t. The DC and Flint water crises were so bad that they restored my faith in politicians. They actually make the scientists and engineers look good by comparison—that’s how bad it is.

Gate/Global Voices: What kind of a role do you think academics or scientists have in situations of government failure?

Edwards: That’s a very controversial subject, because I’ve just been called out by one of the premier journals in my field for doing what I did in Flint. I was horrified to see this, because we have, as professors, all this academic freedom. But frankly, we’re trained cowards, and we’re the last people on Earth to exercise that freedom. We view our job as sucking up to funding agencies full time, and that was the position of this editorial: “Marc Edwards, what you did in Flint, yeah it looks good, but we’re going to be retaliated against and lose our funding.” So this is why I feel justified in saying that this generation of academics is the greatest generation of cowards in US history. I think it’s counterproductive. I think to the extent we stand up and do the right thing, society will appreciate us, and we will strengthen the social contract between society and academia. I think this cowardice that we exhibit, this aloofness, this distance from the public, holing up in our ivory tower, is really one of the greatest threats to the future of science and engineering in this country. So I’m fighting hard to change that perception. I think Flint is a good example, but here we are today, and everyone in the world thinks I did the right thing, except some of my colleagues in my profession who’ve gone on record saying, “don’t do that again.” Crazy.

Gate/Global Voices: You teach a class on ethics and heroism at Virginia Tech. Is that your way of trying to shape the next generation?

Edwards: It is, because frankly, my generation's lost. We're all cynical; we're willfully blind; we're cowards; we're part of the problem, not part of the solution. Now, there are exceptions—and I love academia, by the way, I think being a professor is the greatest job in the world—but that's the reality, and when I tell this Flint story to people around the country, the folks who get it most are the millennials. They understand that there's a problem. And when I speak about this cowardice in academia, they understand it because they see it. They feel that their institutions teach them—and this is true, this is one of the points in our class—that our institutions teach good ethical actors to be willfully blind cowards. History has shown that you can do this. You can teach people to work in concentration camps, and [have them] be perfectly happy. So I've warned them about that, and my hope is really with them. It's really with young people. They're going to be a force for change, and they're not going to stand for this perverse incentive culture that we have in academia. That's my hope. I am the most optimistic person on the planet because I think we're going to change the system, and I think we have to. Failure's not an option here. The stakes are too high.

Gate/Global Voices: What advice would you give to students who are interested in environmental justice, or just social justice in general?

Edwards: I think the key thing I've learned is that environmental injustices occur for a reason. They're occurring in a blind spot, and if you go in there, there's going to be someone who's very, very angry. The other thing that's fascinating is that one of the biggest special-interest groups we have today is government. By and large, we have tamed many of the problems with industry through regulation, through making it good business to be ethical. If it's unethical, we're going to make you pay through lawsuits and fines. And I think so many students want to fight the last war, which is this war against corporate America. But that is the last war. I mean, fifty years ago, that would have been a fruitful path to take. I think the problems I'm seeing, the most pernicious problems, are those with government agencies who are unaccountable, and they have no check and balance on their power. No one ever anticipated that civil servants would do what happened in Washington, DC, or Flint, Michigan with no profit motive whatsoever. And speaking out against a government agency, you do so at your own peril, because these folks have a lot of power, a lot more power than industry, and they're very, very vindictive—they never forget. They've got the memory of an elephant. And if you prove them wrong, they're even madder at you. So I would suggest to people that they be very careful about thinking where the next war's gonna be. By its nature, fighting environmental injustice means making people mad. These blind spots are very pervasive. You have to seek them out, and you have to expose them. And I think, as we did in Flint, Michigan, that once you expose an environmental injustice, people of all parties do the right thing. No one supports what happened in Flint, Michigan. Flint has received over six hundred million dollars to date—that's more than sixty thousand dollars per child in the city—to right this wrong that we helped expose.

This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Lecture Series.