- Marc Edwardsprofessor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. He led the research team that tested hundreds of water samples from Flint residents, uncovering the city’s lead problem.
- Curt Guyetteinvestigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government.
For over a year, Flint residents have complained about the quality of the water, but their cries were ignored by state officials. In February, tests showed alarming levels of lead in the water, but officials told residents there was no threat. That same month, an EPA official named Miguel Del Toral wrote an email to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality warning about lead contamination. No action was taken. He wrote another email in April to the EPA. Then in July, Governor Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote an email to health officials admitting that Flint residents are “basically getting blown off by us.”
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Marc—let’s go to Professor Marc Edwards—
CURT GUYETTE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —since he is here and can—
CURT GUYETTE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you discovered for yourself, how you met LeeAnne and her family and her three boys, and why it is that your team, from Virginia, are the ones doing the testing of the water supply of Flint, Professor Edwards.
MARC EDWARDS: Well, we met LeeAnne because her child had been lead poisoned at that point, and there was no other lead source in her home at all, based on Miguel Del Toral’s investigation. So we did a very, very thorough sampling, as Curt said, of her home, and we found the worst lead-in-water contamination that we have seen in 25 years of working in the field. And LeeAnne herself figured out that the city and state were lying about the use of corrosion control. The EPA had been asked point—asked the Department of Environmental Quality point-blank, “Are you using corrosion control?” And they lied and said yes. And LeeAnne is the one who figured out there was no corrosion control. So, when she informed us of what was going on, we became involved because it was very clear at that point that the agencies who were paid to protect children from this neurotoxin, lead, were not going to do their job.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Professor Edwards, the reason you met LeeAnne, right, is that she and her military husband and her boys moved away from Flint. They were so afraid of what was happening and felt that they were being contaminated. And they came down to Virginia?
MARC EDWARDS: No. Well, that was after. So she stayed, even after her children had been lead poisoned, to fight for other children in the city, helped coordinate the sampling event. And somewhat fittingly, the day she left Flint, they switched back to the Detroit River. But that was months later. I met her early on because of the contamination and the fact her child was lead poisoned, and she was concerned about what was going on not only to her children, but to other children in Flint.
AMY GOODMAN: So you go to Flint with your team. And tell us what you did, the extent of your testing and the response of the city and the state of Michigan.
MARC EDWARDS: Well, this problem should have been stopped, even if there was complete incompetence on the part of the state, with the Del Toral memo. But as Curt mentioned, EPA covered it up. They apologized for this memo that was written. It perfectly explained what was going on, including the fact that Flint was breaking federal law. And EPA administrator Hedman at Region 5 said she was sorry about the memo and that she would vet and edit it, and Mr. Del Toral would not be working on this anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the name of that regional head?
MARC EDWARDS: Susan Hedman.
AMY GOODMAN: Is she still in her position?
MARC EDWARDS: Yes, she is. And I obtained those documents by email that showed that’s exactly what she said. And then the state went and was bragging to the Flint residents that no one was going to help them, that Mr. Del Toral had been, quote, “handled,” and they wouldn’t hear from him again. So it was at that point we launched, with ACLU Michigan and many, many other groups, a completely outside-the-system effort to determine the safety of Flint water and allow Flint residents to see whether it was meeting federal standards or not. So, we conducted a 300-bottle survey, and the residents did an amazing job. They returned more than 90 percent of the kits. And just as—when we started looking at those samples—this was late August—we knew there was no way that Flint’s water could be considered safe by federal standards. And on our webpage that we established to help the residents fight this battle, we announced that no one should be drinking Flint water. And, of course, the state didn’t like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I want to read more from the email written by Governor Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, last July. He wrote, quote, “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the DEQ samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight),” he wrote. That internal email from Dennis Muchmore, Governor Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, dated July 22nd. So, what happened next, Curt Guyette?
CURT GUYETTE: Well, then, as Dr. Edwards just said, we started working with them and with groups, a coalition in Flint, and we all came up with the idea that we’re going to conduct our own test. And that was in August we did that. Virginia Tech sent 300 sample kits, because Dr. Edwards got an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation. And a small team of people worked to educate people about how to take water samples. We held public meetings, and people came. We distributed the kits. And then, within a three-week period, we tested about four times as many homes as the city had tested over the previous six months. And it was very rigorous. Records were kept. We were very diligent to see that all parts of the city were tested, unlike the city tests, which focused on areas where they knew they weren’t going to find lead. We were looking everywhere just to really honestly find out what was really going on, and did everything we could to make it bull-proof, because we knew that they were going to attack us, and we didn’t want to give them really any legitimate openings to question what we did. And so, we were working like crazy to get the kits distributed and collected and sent back. And Dr. Edwards and his team worked around the clock to analyze all these samples. And as soon as the samples started coming in and they saw that the levels were what they were and very disturbing, very alarming, they started putting the information out. And again, all along the way, the status—the approach taken by the MDEQ was to deny there was a problem—
AMY GOODMAN: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
CURT GUYETTE: —and attack the people who were trying to tell the truth—yes.