As the investigation into the water crisis in Flint, Mich., continues to unfold, disturbing reports have arisen that raise questions about the integrity of government science agencies and their possible engagement in scientific misconduct or even outright science denial. It’s a component of the story that may represent the next major blow to public trust in science — a problem that is linked to everything from doubt over the existence of anthropogenic climate change to worries over the safety of vaccines. The story in Flint began when officials opted in the spring of 2014 to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water system, which it had been using for years, to water from the Flint River. More than a year later, growing complaints from city residents about the water’s apparent harmful effects led to investigations that revealed significantly elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children — the water was essentially poisoning them. Ultimately, the news broke that the river water was much more corrosive than the Detroit supply had been and was leaching metal from the lead pipes that are still used in many places throughout the city. How these decisions came to be made and who will be held responsible for them remain the subject of an ongoing investigation in Flint. What’s disturbing from a scientific angle, however, are reports that independent studies that first indicated a problem in Flint were initially simply dismissed. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, points to two prime cases in a recent post on the website Science-Based Medicine, where he is the managing editor. The first of these was the case of a water study conducted by a group of Virginia Tech researchers, led by professor Marc Edwards, in the fall of 2015 in response to complaints about the water. The study, which is published in full online, examined the lead content of drinking water in Flint homes and found that the 90th percentile reading came to 27 parts per billion. For comparison’s sake, the Environmental Protection Agency considers 5 parts per billion to be cause for concern, and 15 parts per billion is the limit beyond which measures must be taken to correct the problem. And that was nothing compared to readings that showed up in other homes later on. The highest lead levels found by the Flint researchers at any point came to 13,000 parts per billion — far beyond what the EPA would legally designate “toxic waste.” Testing conducted by the city, on the other hand, appeared to show lead levels within reasonable limits. As Gorski pointed out, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not take kindly to the Virginia Tech study’s results. Rather than sounding the alarm or retesting the city’s results, the DEQ’s communications director reportedly wrote to a local journalist to say that the state was perplexed by Edwards’ results, but not surprised, as “this group specializes in looking for high lead problems.” The Detroit Free Press also reported that the city’s testing results had been, according to emails, “revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink.” State officials “really didn’t want to know the truth about the problems their bad decisions caused,” Edwards told The Washington Post. “So I think you can see that manifested in their public statements, attempting to use power instead of logic and scientific reasoning to defend and hide their actions.” Similar discredit was awarded to Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrics program director at Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center, who conducted a study around the same time on blood lead levels in Flint children. The study, which was just published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the incidence of elevated blood lead levels nearly doubled after the change in water source, and in some locations even tripled. Hanna-Attisha took the unusual step of announcing her results at a press conference prior to the study’s publication. Her study was also criticized by state officials — however, when the state ultimately analyzed its own data using the same methods applied by Hanna-Attisha, it came to similar conclusions. The link between scientific misconduct and science denial Whether these events in Flint constituted “science denial” on the part of city and state officials is debatable, said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University and expert on science policy and philosophy, in an email to The Washington Post. Science denial is often thought of as “when scientific experts have a consensus on issue X, but parties with a vested interest in not X set out to challenge, undermine or otherwise cast doubt on the science, in an organized way,” she said. An example would be systematic denial on the part of the tobacco industry in the 20th century of tobacco’s links to cancer and other health problems. “It seems to me [the Flint case] falls into the less organized category of ‘no one likes bad news,’” Oreskes said. However, she added, “That is not to say the government is off the hook: there was clearly a dereliction of duty. So one question that surely does need to be answered is this: Why didn’t government officials take it seriously when scientists tried to raise an alarm?” In any case, the events in Flint can at least be likened to a form of scientific misconduct, said Edwards of Virginia Tech — and the effects of such events, especially when they are committed by the government agencies charged with protecting the people, can have egregious impacts on public trust in science, in general, a phenomenon that can lead to the perpetuation of scientific contrarianism, such as the climate denial or anti-vaccine movements. “Science is based on trust — and what happens when scientists are untrustworthy? We lose,” Edwards said. “We lose the public trust, and it is a danger to the symbiotic relationship between science and the public if that happens.” Flint is not the first case to shake public trust in institutional or government science, either, Edwards pointed out. Edwards was also involved in uncovering a famous case of lead contamination in Washington, D.C., drinking water in 2004, which led to an investigation implicating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the EPA in poor monitoring and the use of flawed data. In the wake of such events, the damage to the reputation of scientists everywhere is widespread, according to Edwards. “The public doesn’t trust us with good reason,” he said. This phenomenon aids the rise of contrarian movements challenging otherwise scientifically accepted ideas, he suggested. “I’ve seen many people who observed something like Washington, D.C. or Flint and became hard-core denialists and conspiracy theorists,” he said. “And honestly I can’t blame them — because if we cannot trust the CDC, if we cannot trust the EPA…who can you trust?” Oreskes, the scientific historian, agreed that public distrust of science is a problem and is often exacerbated by budget cuts. “The right wing insists that government is the problem, not the solution, and uses that as a justification for cutting government budgets,” she said in her email. “Then, as a result, government is unable to perform well, and lo and behold, it actually becomes the problem.” The importance of checks and balances The question of how to prevent events like Flint from occurring in the future and protecting the country’s scientific reputation may not have a clear answer. But Edwards suggests that a good starting place would be to institute a better system of checks and balances on agencies that conduct and distribute science. Independent researchers, not affiliated with the government, would be a good resource, he said –“having someone from the outside review these claims and pressure and examine them dispassionately.” On that line of thought, Aron Sousa, interim dean of the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University, wrote a recent opinion piece in Newsweek addressing the importance of public universities in cases like Flint. “It would be a serious mistake to overlook the role of universities in protecting the public welfare in the city,” he wrote, pointing to the work conducted by Edwards and Hanna-Attisha in bringing the city’s issues to light. He also wrote that “at certain times—when facts are in dispute and concerns dismissed—it takes researchers and universities to use and champion science.” Later, in an interview with The Washington Post, he added, “There are many examples of…times when scientists have maybe not upheld their responsibility to their field or to the general public good. But these are cases where people at universities were free to do work that needed to be done, protected from undue influence and the freedom to disseminate their results that really actually improve people’s lives.” Such instances — the cases of Edwards and Hanna-Attisha’s work, for example — should be taken as reinforcement by the public that good science exists and is still being used for the public good, he said. And as the investigation in Flint continues and our understanding of the events that took place there grows, there is rising hope of preventing another such catastrophe from happening elsewhere. And that’s crucial — not only for protecting the public health in communities like Flint, but for preserving the public faith in science itself.
News Article | April 19, 2016
Virginia Republicans have found a new way to obstruct development of a state plan implementing the federal Clean Power Plan: take away funding for it. A line inserted by House Republicans in the state budget will prevent the Department of Environmental Quality from using any funds “to prepare or submit” a state implementation plan unless the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan is released. Governor McAuliffe is fighting back, but the approach he has taken is expected to fail in the face of Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He has responded by offering an amendment to the budget item, removing “prepare or” from the Republicans’ budget amendment. The result would retain the prohibition on submitting a state plan while the Supreme Court’s stay is in effect (a harmless prohibition since EPA won’t accept them for now anyway), but allows DEQ to continue developing the state plan. McAuliffe’s amendment accords with his support for the Clean Power Plan and his pledge to continue development of an implementation plan even while the EPA rule is in limbo. He has already vetoed Republican-backed bills that would have required DEQ to submit any implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval before sending it to the EPA. These vetoes can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority, and Republicans don’t have the numbers. But the budget amendment is doomed to fail. A governor’s budget amendment can be defeated by a simple majority vote. House Republicans are expected to vote in lock step to reject the amendment when the General Assembly reconvenes April 20. Environmental groups had expected the governor to use a line-item veto to strip out the offending language. Doing so would have meant the Republicans couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority to overcome the veto. We’re told McAuliffe changed his approach on the advice of attorneys who felt a line-item veto invited a constitutional challenge. The result, though, is a loss for the Governor. Worse, it means Virginia will lose time in crafting a plan to diversify and de-carbonize our electricity grid. As a coastal state on the front lines of sea level rise, Virginia has more to lose than almost any other state from our fossil fuel addiction. And for Virginia, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is so easy that it’s hard to listen to Republicans fuss without picturing tempests in teapots. Obviously, Republican opposition to a plan to cut carbon is neither more nor less than an act of spite aimed at President Obama. But what have they gained with this maneuver? At most it’s a “win” for an old energy model built on obsolete coal plants owned by bankrupt corporations that have laid off thousands of workers and cut the benefits of retired miners while lavishing campaign cash on legislators and paying millions of dollars in executive bonuses. That’s not the kind of win you put on campaign posters. The Sierra Club and other climate activists plan to call out the House Republican leadership for their budget maneuver with a rally at the Capitol at 10 a.m. on April 20, during the veto session. The event, fittingly, is called “Turn Up the Heat in the House.”
The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. The plan calls for testing in homes, schools, restaurants and the water distribution system, as well as blood testing, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said in a statement. Some portions of the city's water system could be given an all-clear on a rolling basis before mid-April, the Detroit Free Press newspaper reported, citing other state officials. Michigan's governor on Thursday extended a state of emergency in Flint until April 14 to help the cash-strapped city recover from the lead contamination crisis which began after it switched water sources in 2014 to try to save money. “We want to have systems and structures in place that will lead us to better conclusions for the people of Flint,” Michigan DEQ Director Keith Creagh said of the testing plan presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plan calls for four rounds of testing, each taking about two weeks, Creagh told the Detroit Free Press. The Michigan city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its source of tap water from Detroit's system to the Flint River in April 2014. The more corrosive water from the Flint River leached more lead from the city pipes than Detroit water did. Residents complained of various health problems from using the local water after the switch, despite officials' assurances that the water was safe. Flint, which is about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of Detroit, returned to using that city's water in October after tests found elevated levels of lead in the water and in the blood of some children.
The Flint River is shown near downtown Flint, Mich., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Residents in the former auto-making hub — a poor, largely minority city — feel their complaints about lead-tainted water flowing through their taps have been slighted by the government or ignored altogether. For many, it echoes the lackluster federal response to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) More DETROIT (AP) — Michigan's top environmental officer was by turns cooperative and confrontational with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, pledging to work together to ensure the safety of Flint's drinking water but challenging the legality and scope of some federal demands. In a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh wrote that the state "is committed to working" with her department and Flint to deal with the city's lead-contamination problem. But he said the state has "legal and factual concerns" with an EPA order a day earlier taking state and city officials to task for their efforts so far and requiring them to take specific actions. Creagh said Michigan "has complied with every recent demand" of the EPA and that Thursday's federal order "does not reference the tens of millions of dollars expended by ... the state for water filters, drinking water, testing and medical services." "The order demands that the state take certain actions, but fails to note that many of those actions ... have already been taken," Creagh, who recently replaced an official who resigned over the water crisis, wrote in his required response to the EPA order. Flint's water became contaminated with lead when the city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save the financially struggling city money. The water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems. Creagh wrote that state officials don't know whether it's legal for the EPA to order Michigan to take such actions. Among other requirements, the EPA said the city should: submit plans for ensuring that Flint's water has adequate treatment, including corrosion controls; ensure city personnel are qualified to operate the water system in a way that meets federal quality standards; and create a website where the public can get information. Earlier Friday, The Flint Water Advisory Task Force issued recommendations to Snyder aimed at restoring reliable drinking water in Flint. The advisory group said its recommendations are more detailed and comprehensive than what the EPA ordered, and Snyder said officials would "move as quickly as possible to determine the best way to achieve the results." Separately, Snyder announced the suspensions of two employees of the state Department of Environmental Quality in connection with regulatory failures that led to the crisis. The panel's recommendations included working with the EPA staff on a comprehensive lead-sampling program and seeking help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in assessing an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease and its cause. "To help address both the technical issues facing Flint, as well as the public-trust issues, we believe it is imperative to have the right people and organizations involved," task force Co-Chairman Chris Kolb said. "Until the public trust starts to build, this crisis will continue." Flint's public health emergency led to local, state and federal emergency declarations, the last of which could bring up to $5 million in direct funding to the city. The federal government denied a request for additional aid through a disaster declaration, saying the program is designed for natural disasters and therefore not appropriate for the city's drinking water crisis. The government announced Friday that it had denied an appeal of that decision by Snyder. The unnamed DEQ employees who were suspended Friday pending investigations work in the agency's drinking water division, state spokesman Kurt Weiss said. The agency's director and communications director resigned last month. "Some DEQ actions lacked common sense, and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint," Snyder said. While much of the blame over the crisis has been directed at Snyder and state officials, particularly the Department of Environmental Quality, some have faulted the EPA's Region 5 office for not acting more forcefully. The EPA's order to state and city officials came the same day that the agency announced that Susan Hedman, head of the agency's regional office in Chicago whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, was stepping down Feb. 1. Associated Press writers John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, and David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this report. Follow Roger Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rogschneider and Jeff Karoub at https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub .
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwest official said her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply — a situation that likely put residents at risk for lead contamination — but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public. Starting with inquiries made in February, the federal agency battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law. Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November." "The EPA's Hush-Hush Response to the Flint Water Crisis" (Common Dreams)