Va. Tech Professor to Help Save Flint

I’m generally the kind of conservative who thinks government should be small because it is incompetent, not because it is evil.  Dealing with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) health care system has taught me that a bureaucracy can be disastrously ineffective no matter how well-meaning many of its people are or how broadly supported the cause.

The line between incompetence and evil can be a thin one, though, especially when government decides to cover up its mistakes instead of taking responsibility.  People decide to cover their you-know-wheres no matter the cost to ordinary citizens.  This is how at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at VA facilities.  And this is how you get Flint.

It was surprising to discover via a recent article that the poisoning of Flint may have never been exposed if one of its residents hadn’t reached out to Virginia for help.  This week, it was announced that a Virginia Tech professor, Marc Edwards, will be part of the official committee formed to fix the problem in Flint after his work led to it being exposed in the first place.  He is the only person on the committee from outside Michigan.

Last year, when Flint residents began reporting symptoms of lead poisoning, state and local officials first pretended the problem didn’t exist, then pretended it was isolated to the homes of those complaining. (No, state and local officials are not magically immune from the kind of bureaucratic behavior we usually criticize in the federal government.)

The problem with the water supply only came to light after a stay-at-home mom in Flint did some research online and called Edwards at his Blacksburg office.  She had read about his work exposing lead poisoning in the Washington, D.C. water system in the 1990s and asked him to help do the same in her city.  The VT professor walked her through testing her own water, and the result was “the worst lead levels he had ever seen.”

Credit: Marc Edwards
Credit: Marc Edwards

So did the government wake up after one of their own – a public university professor – alerted them to the problem?  Of course not.  The EPA pretended everything was fine and told the mayor of Flint this.  As his constituents were being poisoned, he went on camera and defended the water publicly.

In response, Edwards kept conducting tests, filing FOIA requests, and making the results of both available online.  He received an emergency National Science Foundation grant of $33,000 and spent almost $150,000 more out of his own pocket.  Eventually the truth won out, and now that the scandal has exploded into a national story of shameful government incompetence, Flint residents demanded that Edwards be included in the committee tasked to figure out a solution.  They even spray-painted “WE WANT VA TECH!!!” on a local wall used as a kind of public message board.

How did residents screwed by one set of government institutions end up demanding another one get involved?  Not all government entities are equal – Virginia Tech may be part of the government, but it is a part that involves at least some degree of competition.  Both individual professors and universities as a whole are scrutinized, formally evaluated, and regularly ranked against their peers.  The public university system has numerous issues to address, but unlike the water supply, the education supply comes from many different sources – there are 15 different public universities in Virginia alone – and customers can openly choose between them.  Professors can also have tenure, allowing them a degree of latitude in publicly crusading against problems that a random EPA employee would never have.

It was heartening to hear that a Virginia school played a leading role in helping expose government cold-heartedness in Flint, but it was a shame that this professor had to fight through so many layers of red tape and spend so much of his own money to do so.  I may still believe that government incompetence is the biggest reason to be conservative, but stories like this show that sometimes the problem isn’t that the government doesn’t know of its mistakes – it’s that the government doesn’t care.

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