Naples Daily News

October 20, 2016

Hero in Flint water crisis to visit Florida SouthWestern

Thyrie Bland

http://www.naplesnews.com/story/news/education/2016/10/19/hero-flint-water-crisis-visit-florida-southwestern/92347434/

 

When Marc Edwards went on a six-year effort to prove there were dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water in Washington, D.C., the federal government did not welcome his findings.

Edwards found the same disinterest last year when he went on a mission to show the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, was not safe.

The Virginia Tech University civil and environmental engineering professor was right both times, but proving he was turned out to be difficult, frustrating and costly.

Edwards is set to come to Florida SouthWestern State College in November to share his story, and he will be in the audience opening night when students perform a play that parallels Edwards' experiences.

Steven Dietz's "Paragon Springs" is the story of what happens when a townsman discovers the healing waters of the town's springs are contaminated, and the mayor tries to discredit him. The play is based on playwright Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People."

"The play, for Ibsen, I think deals more with this issue of how does an individual live with integrity within society," said Stuart Brown, a professor of theater at Florida SouthWestern. "It relates very nicely to Marc's story. He was attacked personally, called a firebrand. So it, I think, has some interesting resonances."

Edwards will speak on FSW's Fort Myers campus at 3 p.m. Nov. 2. in Rush Auditorium. The play opens on campus at 8 p.m. Nov. 3 in the Black Box Theatre.

Edwards is well-known as the scientist who fought to prove what the government was trying to hide in Washington and Flint — that the water contained high contaminants of lead.

But not everyone thinks of Edwards as a hero. Some have been critical of him of taking on the role of scientist and activist.

Edwards disagrees with his critics and believes scientists can do more than just present research. He said they can speak out.

"I think the criticism is coming from what I call the greatest generation of cowards I think this world has ever seen — these academic professors who have all this freedom and are the last people on earth to exercise it," Edwards said.

Edwards said he understands why others would be leery about getting involved in the causes that he has taken up, and he would not fault anyone for looking the other way.

"But that said, to criticize me after we exposed an environmental crime and protected kids and a city's future and been vindicated in every way imaginable, it really is just beyond belief to me," he said, specifically referring to the Flint water crisis.

He said another reason he doesn't understand the criticism shoveled his way is because he took on risks that didn't affect anyone else.

"It was my career that was on the line," he said. "It was my funding that was on the line. If I made a mistake, I would be losing my job, my reputation, and so I am not understanding the depth of the cowardice here where someone else would criticize you even after you are successful by every conceivable measure."

FSW theater major Tim Cash, 20, has the lead role in the play. He describes his character, Thomas Stockman, the man who discovers the water is contaminated, as a person of strong convictions.

"I think one of the things we are kind of going with is what's the role of the whistleblower in society," Cash said.

Cash compares his character to Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs, including the collection of Americans’ telephone records.

"He sees these obvious problems going on in the government," Cash said. "So he does what he believes is right. I don't want to say maybe the majority agrees with him, but I would say a pretty good amount of the population does."

Edwards said taking a stand has cost him. He said he has lost friends and funding, and he has had thoughts of suicide.

"At times, I thought I lost my sanity," he said. "I put  my family through hell, and I had everything going for me, everything imaginable. And it was still unbelievably difficult."

Edwards became involved with the lead issue in Washington when the Environmental Protection Agency asked for his help. He said he and the federal agency had a falling out for a variety of reasons, including his belief that the EPA was not acting in the best interest of the public.

"They were not forthcoming about how bad the problem was, and I didn't know how bad they were not forthcoming," Edwards said. "I just had this sense ... that things were not as they seemed. It was only after it became public I fully realized just how right that gut feeling was."

Validation for Edwards didn't come until 2010 when the Centers for Disease Control admitted to misleading Washington residents about the risk of lead in the city's drinking water.

 

Edwards ended up in another fight with the federal government after he received a phone call from a Flint mother, complaining about the city's water. She sent Edwards some water samples, and he tested them, confirming there were reasons to be concerned about the lead levels in Flint's water.

The problem in Flint dates back to 2014 when the city switched water systems and didn't use corrosion inhibitors to prevent toxic levels of lead from getting into the water.

"I mean the easiest thing in the world would have been to do their job," Edwards said. "To see how hard they worked to avoid doing their job and fighting everyone who is trying to expose what was going on, it's sickening. It's disturbing. It's an unparallel ethical case study that will live in infamy."

FSW student Julia Rivera said she was aware of the Flint water crisis before auditioning for the play, but the play inspired her to learn more about it. She said she watched stories online on CNN and searched YouTube.

"I didn't know nearly how bad the situation was until I actually sat and researched it," she said.

Rivera said she thinks the play will spark lots of conversation and cause others to want to learn more about what happened in Flint.

"I hope that people kind of realize everything that is going on and that there are people who don't have clean water and how much of a shame that actually is and the effects that it can have on people physically and emotionally," she said.

Art and life

Florida Southwestern State College Theatre presents:

Paragon Springs 

Nov. 3-4, 10-11, 8 p.m

Nov. 5, 12, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Black Box Theatre (Humanities Hall, Room L-119B )

8099 College Parkway, Fort Myers, FL

Tickets are $5 for students and $10 general admission

Tickets are available at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2676246​​