ASCE Member Leading the Fight for Clean Water in Flint, MI

February 12, 2016
Marc Edwards. PHOTO: Virginia Tech
Marc Edwards. PHOTO: Virginia Tech

The lesson came early in his career. Just six months into his first job, in fact.

“I was involved in a case that involved the public, and we all knew what the right thing was to do, every last one of us,” says Marc Edwards, M.ASCE, still angered by the memory more than 25 years later. “But a lawyer of our client told us not to do it. And I remember that moment thinking: Why are civil engineers subservient to this person who has no training in public health and is not sworn to uphold the first canon of civil engineering? Why do we allow this person to impose their standards on us?

“That’s haunted me to this day.”

Edwards has turned those ghosts into a remarkable career of service. He is an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, who famously fought a decade ago to eliminate lead from the water of Washington, DC, and now is contending with a similar if not more dire situation in Flint, MI.

After months of work with the Flint Water Study startup organization – with research often paid for out of his own pockets – Edwards has been appointed by the Michigan governor to the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee.

“I feel it’s my obligation to advocate for people who can’t speak for themselves, and that was the case in Flint,” Edwards said. “This tragedy was being perpetrated on the most vulnerable among us by the very people paid to protect them. I can’t live in a world where that’s allowed to happen.”

If Edwards sounds more like a superhero than a civil engineer, that’s probably because he doesn’t see the two as mutually exclusive.

“Civilization and society count on us,” Edwards said. “We represent the public – do not forget that. Your client might be in front of you at that moment paying the bills. They might even be a government agency. But in the end, we are the eyes and ears of the public. And if we don’t protect them no one will.”

Edwards initially intended to study medicine before being swayed by the principles espoused in Canon 1 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, which holds paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

“It really spoke to me,” Edwards said. “It sounded like a very altruistic profession. Civil engineers were once the giants of society, not all that long ago. They improved the lives of millions and millions of people, and I thought I could have a bigger impact in engineering than in medicine.

“I got into the field because I wanted to help people first and foremost.”

To follow Edwards’ work in pursuit of that goal, go online at FlintWaterStudy.org.

New ASCE course on water treatment tech to cover Flint

Amid events in Flint, a new continuing education course to be offered by ASCE this spring is especially timely. Drinking Water Treatment Technologies is among the first of the Society’s all-new 12-week guided online course programs. Instructor Lee Odell, P.E., water treatment global technology lead for CH2M Hill, will feature a case study on the current situation in Flint. The course opens April 4 and runs through June 24. Details are at ASCE’s Continuing Education website.

5 Comments
  • Richard Davis, P.E., M.ASCE

    Thanks to Mark for being someone who is dedicated to the protection of people and is now a force to be heard. We need more like him.

    I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. I remember as a child we were told never to drink or play in the river because of the pollution. Everyone who was raised in Flint knew about the river. There was even a front page story in the paper when a catfish was caught in the river as nothing could live there. It is obvious that no engineer was consulted nor were the proper studies made concerning the use of the river for drinking water. We as engineers must do more to protect people and the environment and raise the alarm when we see unsafe conditions like Mark did.

  • Where was ASCE and the other professional organizations when The Flint Mayor appointed unqualified people to run Flint’s Public Works Department which includes the water department?

  • John Mundell, P.E., M. ASCE

    Thanks Mark for your work on this vital issue! For 35 years, I have been involved in the development of environmental policy at the local, state and national level to protect the public’s interest. Too few times have I encountered other civil engineers willing to involve themselves in the ‘messy’ task of creating policies – laws – practices that involve some kind of negotiation and interaction with opposing viewpoints. I understand – most engineers do not feel comfortable in this very ‘public’ leadership role. But, if it is not us, who else is better qualified for this task? Our education, our experience, and our dedication are just the right mix of elements that give us the kind of tools to help make those tough decisions – all based on sound scientific and engineering principles. Thanks again, Mark Edwards, for showing us that the road ‘less traveled’ by our civil engineers, is perhaps ‘the road’ that we should have been designing, building and traveling along more often than not, in leading our communities and nation toward a better and more sustainable future.

  • Michael S. Ellegood, PE

    We need more Marc Edwards’ in our profession. In my 50 year professional career, I have seen we engineers relegated to the role of technician rather than as a trusted professional colleague. Our opinions are thrust aside as lawyers, accountants, and politicians elbow their way into positions of authority. To a large extent, we are at least partially to blame for our own lack of stature. While I am quite active in public affairs, few of my engineer friends are. While I speak out on issues, most often infrastructure investment and education (a personal passion), I see no one else with the “PE” suffix rendering opinion in public venues. Our state legislature has no engineers in elective office.
    I joined the profession, like Marc, to make a difference. We all should reflect that same level of passion for our chosen profession. Let’s get with it!

  • Paul Callaway, P.E., M.ASCE

    I am glad to hear that Mark Edwards is a good advocate for the publics interests. I only wish the ASCE would to much more to fight carbon pollution and the resulting climate change. I think we in the ASCE must do much more in the fight for a good future environment for the whole planet and its people!

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