Marc Edwards is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. He is not only an engineer he is also a whistleblower. Along with citizen scientists, and concerned residents, Edwards exposed the Flint Water Crisis which began in 2014 and persists today.
Edwards blew the whistle on the ill practices of entities working to intentionally cut corners in the water infrastructure of Flint, Michigan, and the United States as a whole.
A keen studier of America’s aging infrastructure, Edwards pulled the veil back on ‘scientific misconduct’ of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dating as far back as 2001. He put together a report named: ‘A Public Health Tragedy: How Flawed C.D.C Data and Faulty Assumptions Endangered Children’s Health in the Nation’s Capital.”
In Flint, he found that the city had changed from a system where they initially got treated water from Detroit’s Water & Sewerage Department, to a system where they started consuming water from their own polluted river.
The situation was made more harmful due to the fact that the water was being distributed through old lead pipes. The water had purportedly transgressed the Safe Drinking Water Act four times. Flint’s treatment plant purportedly failed to use vital chemical treatments to prevent the corrosion of pipes – pipes that when corroded released lead into the water supply.
Edwards testified to the American Congress, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of willful blindness to the pleas of inhabitants involved in the man made disaster. He accused them of being unrepentant, and unable to learn from their mistakes. Through his studies, he showed that the EPA’s malfeasance stemmed from 2001 all the way through to 2016.
“I guess being a government agency means you never have to say sorry,” Edwards said in his testimony. He believed that the Flint Water Crisis showed that there could be a dark side to science, engineering and academia.
Edwards explains that the installation of lead pipes into U.S. water infrastructure was a disaster and a tragedy. From 2000 to 2004 miscarriage and fetal death rates spiked due to mothers drinking water fed from lead pipes.
Even the Roman engineers as far back as the 1st Century BC knew not to use lead and water in the same system.
In February of 2016, in Flint, Michigan, it was revealed that the lead levels were 900 times higher than limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Engineers should strive to operate in an ethical manner, thereby becoming the moral authority in their particular field of practice. Moral authority is defined as the quality or characteristic of a person, institution, or written work that is respected for having good character or knowledge, especially as a source of guidance or an exemplar of proper conduct.
In a bid to eliminate the chance of ethical or moral mistakes in the field of engineering societies were established in the 19th Century. The intention was to establish professional standards and ethical principles for engineers and their profession.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, sets out the following ethical rule-of-thumb:
“Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. “
The Institution of Civil Engineers’ creed reads:
“Members of the ICE should always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good. A member’s obligation to the client can never override this, and members of the ICE should not enter undertakings which compromise this responsibility. The ‘public good’ encompasses care and respect for the environment, and for humanity’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, as well as the primary responsibility members have to protect the health and wellbeing of present and future generations.”
Despite these strictures, around the world, from the governmental to the training levels of engineering, unethical practices persist and often snowball into tragic events.
When an engineer notices abuses within the profession, those that transgress the ethical and moral principles that engineers should adhere to, blowing the whistle may be the answer. It does, however, take an enormous amount of courage and a considerable depth of knowledge. Marc Edwards had both and is to be commended.
“Marc Edwards | The Flint and Washington D.C. Drinking Water Lead Crises.” YouTube, Apr. 2016, youtu.be/dEgZpM6j6cc.
VirginiaTech. “Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards Testifies about the EPA’s Role in Flint, Michigan.” YouTube, YouTube, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VG57IWQfZ4&t=196s.