Near the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Flint, Mich., there is an old pump house, the walls of which have long served as a kind of communal billboard. The Block, people call it. People paint messages there — birthday wishes, memorials for the dead. In January, after Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in response to Flint’s water crisis, a new message appeared, addressed implicitly to Snyder but also to the world: YOU WANT OUR TRUST??? WE WANT VA TECH!!! In the history of political graffiti, “We want Va. Tech” may sound like one of the least stirring demands ever spray-painted on a wall, but in the context of Flint, it was charged with the emotion and meaning of a rallying cry.
By “Va. Tech,” the message’s author meant a Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering, Marc Edwards. Edwards has spent most of his career studying the aging waterworks of America, publishing the sort of papers that specialists admire and the rest of us ignore, on subjects like “ozone-induced particle destabilization” or the “role of temperature and pH in Cu(OH)₂ solubility.” Explaining his research to laypeople, he sometimes describes it as “the C.S.I. of plumbing.” Edwards is a detective with a research lab and a Ph.D. In 2000, after homeowners in suburban Maryland began reporting “pinhole leaks” in their copper pipes, the water authority there brought in Edwards. In 2002, after receiving a report that water in a Maui neighborhood had mysteriously turned blue and was giving people rashes, Edwards took on the case.
Until last year, the most famous case Edwards investigated was the lead contamination of the water supply in the nation’s capital — still the worst such event in modern American history, in magnitude and duration. In Washington, lead levels shot up in 2001, and in some neighborhoods they remained dangerously elevated until 2010. Edwards maintains, and spent years working to prove, that scientific misconduct at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exacerbated the D.C. crisis. A congressional investigation culminated in a 2010 report, titled “A Public Health Tragedy: How Flawed C.D.C. Data and Faulty Assumptions Endangered Children’s Health in the Nation’s Capital.” It confirmed many of his allegations, but the experience was for Edwards a decade-long ordeal that turned him into a reluctant activist — or as he prefers to say, “a troublemaker.”
For television appearances, Edwards will put on a suit and tie, and the tie almost always bears a picture of some endangered animal: a giant panda, for instance, or a water buffalo. But on the morning we met, in his lab at Virginia Tech, he was dressed in a black track suit and a pair of running shoes — the uniform he prefers. At 52, he has the youthful yet slightly skeletal good looks of an avid long-distance runner, which he is. “Before Flint, I was running 50 miles a week,” he told me. “Now I’m down to 27.” Running keeps him sane, he says, or at least saner than he would be otherwise. More than once during his investigations into D.C. and Flint, he wondered if he might be losing his mind.
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