Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Virginia Heroes

The Washington Post has a good article about the Virginia Tech professor who documented both the lead content of Flint, Michigan's water and the complete failure of public officials at all levels who discounted and covered up the problem.    Turns out Flint is not his first run-in with lead pipes and devious public officials. 
Marc Edwards...more than a decade earlier proved, along with an investigation by The Washington Post, that corrosion in the nation’s capital’s pipes had caused lead to seep into the water supply and pass through kitchen faucets and shower heads. After helping to expose that water crisis in 2004, he spent six years challenging the Centers for Disease Control to admit they weren’t being honest about the extent of the damage the lead had on children.  He burned through thousands of dollars of his own money, as well as $500,000 from a MacArthur Foundation genius grant he won in 2008, to take on the federal government. He was harassed, lampooned, and threatened. He lost friends.  Then, in 2010, he was vindicated when it was proven that the CDC had lied to the public in a misleading report, which falsely claimed lead levels in the water had not posed a health risk to D.C. residents.
Unlike state, local and federal officials, Dr. Edwards has earned the trust of Flint's citizens by his dogged pursuit of the truth behind one of the most grievous governmental failures in US history.

This event, and the actions of a dedicated public official reminds me of another public official who went out of his way to identify a similar environmental crime.  In 1975 Virginia state epidemiologist Robert Jackson documented Kepone poisoning of  workers at Life Sciences Products Company in Hopewell, Virginia after being alerted by a local doctor who had treated worker and suspected chemical poisoning.  Upon seeing the plant, which was housed in an old gas station, Jackson arranged to meet with workers and take blood samples which returned results high enough to trigger an immediate state shut-down of the plant.

Further investigation found that, in addition to poisoning workers, the plant had also poisoned the lower James River, leading to a ban on commercial fishing on the river that lasted until 1988.  In the end Allied Chemical, which had contracted with two employees to create Life Sciences to produce Kepone, was found to have also discharged Kepone to the river and was fined $13.2 million for violating federal pollution laws .  Life Sciences was also fined $4 million but was already defunct and never paid.  The two owners were fined $25,000 each.

The difference between Flint and Hopewell was that in the latter event, government worked to identify  and take immediate action.  Not so in Flint.  What did work in both cases was that one individual acted on results to force action.  Hopewell was more fortunate than Flint in that action was immediate but if it weren't for the tireless efforts of Dr. Edwards, the official stone wall of evasion in Flint would not have been breached.

What did not work in Virginia was public oversight of hazardous materials and their routine discharge into the state's waters.  Virginia's State Water Control Board (SWCB) largely ignored Allied Chemical's discharges until the Dr. Jackson blew the whistle on the company after egregiously poor handling of a toxic substance by Allied's supposedly independent subcontractor.  The SWCB in that era was less likely to challenge one of the state's largest industries.  I worked on a 1976 program evaluation of water resource management in Virginia that found " widespread noncompliance among major municipal and industrial [discharge] permit holders in Virginia." 

America may have come a long way in dealing with environmental hazards since the 1970's.  Still the system requires dedicated public officials to speak out forcefully. 

Kudos to Doctors Edward and Jackson.  American could use many more of you.

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