An investigative science reporting series by Flintwaterstudy.org
A whistleblower’s journey requires navigating one gut-wrenching ethical dilemma after another. First, one must make every attempt to resolve problems within the system, before taking distasteful allegations public. Second, a whistleblower must also believe that true harm (e.g., public endangerment or a miscarriage of justice) could result from remaining silent. After those thresholds are met, it is a difficult decision whether or not to blow the whistle, because retaliation is a virtual certainty, and weeks to years can pass before society renders any kind of verdict about the righteousness of your cause.
For example, Flintwaterstudy’s Dr. Edwards worked quietly behind the scenes from April to July 2015 with LeeAnne Walters, ACLU Michigan reporter Curt Guyette, EPA employee Miguel Del Toral and others, in what proved to be a futile effort to force the City of Flint, State of Michigan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to follow the Lead and Copper Rule. We launched Flintwaterstudy in August 2015 only after we felt government had failed at all levels—history has judged our work as honorable whistleblowing. Dr. Edwards was also vindicated after seven years work revealing the depths of the Washington DC Lead Crisis and associated cover-up.
When we started to have problems with the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP) in 2016, we first sought resolution through direct communication with FACHEP faculty. After about a year of vacuous responses we gave up. We helped Flint residents file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, publicly called out behavior we deemed irresponsible, filed an ethics complaint with the appropriate authorities at the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), testified under oath in response to a subpoena, and then documented numerous concerns about FACHEP’s founder Dr. Shawn McElmurry.
For 9 months we have waited, but unfortunately, it seems clear that the system is once again failing at multiple levels, including:
- Wayne State University has repeatedly ignored FOIA law, delaying release of critical documents to Dr. Edwards
- Wayne State University issued numerous press releases expressing unqualified support for McElmurry, while at the same time failing to produce a shred of evidence to validate his claimed work record
- Wayne State University has also denied a reasonable FOIA request for public documents critical to the defense of Mr. Nick Lyon. They claimed it would cost $280,000, that McElmurry was the only person who could review the documents and it would take 11 years to do so. These are not typos: McElmurry decides what documents he would release to Mr. Lyon, it would cost $280,000 and take 11 years!
- Flint Water Crisis special prosecutors failed to acknowledge, much less address, legitimate questions about McElmurry’s testimony under oath
- State of Michigan’s Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) has not yet resolved the serious ethics allegations raised about McElmurry
As this untenable stalemate has persisted, THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN vs. EDEN WELLS (and NICK LYON) is now proceeding to a full trial. The pre-trials were amongst the most expensive in State of Michigan history, with taxpayers paying millions and millions of dollars for both the defense and prosecution, and the special prosecutors’ case is almost completely dependent on the testimony of FACHEP faculty.
While it is another difficult and painful decision, we once again consider it in the public interest to resume our investigative science series on the FACHEP saga, especially considering the possible miscarriage of justice, high cost, and misinformation that has been spread by FACHEP team members since 2016. Our series is based on review of over 20,000 pages of FOIA documents we obtained from the: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Genesee County Health Department (GCHD), Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), University of Texas (UT), Michigan State University (MSU), and Wayne State University (WSU). We also rely on information provided to us by Flint residents, thousands of pages of sworn testimony in the Wells and Lyon pre-trials, interviews with those involved with the Flint Federal Emergency response, and personally witnessing many of the relevant events described herein.
Origins of McElmurry’s Leadership Role and of FACHEP
In part 1 of this series published March 2018, we documented how McElmurry burst onto the scene of the Flint Water Crisis mid-October 2015, with an assertion that he had been working “in Flint” on water issues from 2010 to 2015. He further claimed that he had developed “a complete hydraulic model of Flint’s water distribution system” through that work. In our earlier blogs we described how we began to doubt McElmurry’s qualifications, compiled inconsistencies in his testimony about working “in Flint” and other issues. We have since learned some other relevant details about the problematic birth of FACHEP.
In the felony court cases Dr. Larry Reynolds testified about the moment in January 2016, that the idea was first floated to select McElmurry to lead a study of the Flint Legionella Outbreak. Reynolds, a member of Governor Snyder’s task force and a respected activist throughout the Flint Water Crisis, stated that in response to an inquiry from Harvey Hollins (Governor’s office) regarding capable Legionella researchers that “..I recommended Doctor Shawn McElmurry, an environmental engineer at Wayne State because he had done hydraulic modeling for the city of Flint I think within the past year.” Harvey Hollins was a former Vice-President at Wayne State who had met McElmurry a few times, and Reynolds is a Wayne State alumni.
Around that same time (January 22, 2016) the Flint Task Force that Dr. Reynolds was a member of recommended that Governor Snyder:
“Establish an inter-disciplinary work group comprising subject matter experts drawn from respected public utility associations and institutions of higher learning in Michigan and elsewhere (including Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech), to oversee the conversion to KWA supplied raw water. Commission and/or contract with an unbiased third-party organization or consortium (hereafter: Flint water safety scientific assessment team [FWSSAT]) that will be responsible for assessing the quality and safety of drinking water…<for> lead and Legionella..”
Dr. Reynolds recommendation of McElmurry to lead FACHEP (i.e., evolved from “FWSSAT”) carried a great deal of weight. Because decision makers felt there was no time for normal scientific vetting amidst the chaos of the federal emergency declaration, they implemented emergency procedures to give McElmurry a sole source contract. When doing so, Mr. Lyon acknowledged in an email January 24th 2016, that the Flint community was “understandably skeptical of government actions and deserves the assurance of independent subject matter experts.”
From the perspective of scientific expertise necessary to lead an investigation into Legionnaires disease, McElmurry had none. He literally had never led or contributed to any research or project or publication pertaining to Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaires disease. There is no record that he ever conducted work in applied microbiology or building water systems, and he also had very little experience with potable water quality or regulations. But to some, his repeated claim of intimate local knowledge about the pipes, people and politics was priceless, especially for a situation involving a vulnerable community reeling from distrust due to the failure of government at all levels. According to court testimony, McElmurry also claimed to have stored Flint biological samples from Flint in 2014 and 2015, that could help unravel origins of the 2014 and 2015 outbreak. In all respects the selection of McElmurry to lead FACHEP was a concession to those “understandably skeptical” of government (like Reynolds) and who valued claims of local knowledge over scientific expertise. The testimony of Hollins, Reynolds and McElmurry revealed their shared Wayne State ties also played a role.
Even if the judgment of history were to someday decide that tapping McElmurry for leadership of FACHEP was a complete disaster, in Dr. Reynolds’ defense, Dr. Edwards’ trust was also once misplaced in McElmurry’s due to his superficially plausible and compelling stories. McElmurry’s heartwarming tale of 5 years volunteer work “in Flint” and claim to have created a complete hydraulic model in advance of the Flint Water Crisis, gradually snowballed over the years, to a point in 2017 where an assistant special prosecutor described McElmurry to a judge as follows:
This is an Environmental Engineer who has devoted his life to water quality and water safety in regard to distribution systems and drinking water safety……He’s an Environmental Engineer that has significant experience in the spread of disease from water distribution systems.
There is no record in the transcript that anyone in the courtroom either burst out laughing or corrected this false claim.
Michigan’s foremost Legionella experts denied a role
It is painful to reflect on what FACHEP could and should have been. Dr. Joan Rose at Michigan State University is one of the most celebrated waterborne disease experts in the world. A 2016 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate (a sort of Nobel Prize of the water field), she is presently chairing a National Academy of Sciences committee on Management of Legionella in Water Systems. Dr. Rose was one of the first professors to volunteer her services after the switch to Flint River, was respected by all the key players, and authored an article on Flint’s growing water problems in spring 2015.
In early 2015, Dr. Rose was in close contact with Jim Henry and Suzanne Cupal (GCHD) on the Legionella issue, and other world class experts including Dr. Ruth Berkelman (Emory), and Dr. Janet Stout (Special Pathogens Lab) who was addressing the Legionella outbreak at McLaren hospital. This team was making a sound plan for action on the Legionella issue and were also assisting Virginia Tech’s independent research into the Legionella issue. Thus, when Dr. Eden Wells reached out to Dr. Edwards on February 16th 2016 to provide professional references on Legionella experts, he enthusiastically endorsed Dr. Rose’s team that had been working in Flint for more than a year at that point. At the time, Wells gave Edwards a strong sense that she would like to have given the leadership role to Rose, but McElmurry’s local experience in Flint from 2010-2015, hydraulic model, and archived samples from 2014 to 2015 were compelling to others, as were the “politics” (presumably referring to Reynolds or whoever recommended McElmurry). Wells did reach out to Rose an hour after speaking with Edwards, but the two did not immediately connect because Dr. Rose was traveling overseas.
When Rose returned to the U.S. and her team read a March 1, 2016 press release announcing that McElmurry had been given the leadership role in a Legonella project, they internally expressed prescient concerns about the situation. For example, after Dr. Rose spoke with McElmurry on March 1, 2016, she emailed her colleagues:
So Shawn called me today, and gave me some of what was going on, but not all of it. I think this is the STATE has decided they needed to do something and was in communication with CDC without including you all. I don’t get it but it is what it is.
Suzanne Cupal (GCHD) immediately responded to Dr. Rose:
We want to work with all of you. Our concern is that Shawn and this team do not have Legionella expertise. I am concerned that the communication issues continue. The health of our community is our greatest concern. There is far too much politics happening. We want to keep people safe and move the science forward. It will take your third party involvement to help keep the politics out.
On March 2, 2016, Dr. Rose reached out to Dr. Eden Wells at MDHSS, trying to diplomatically alert her to the limitations of hiring McElmurry (i.e., sacrificing scientific expertise for politics and local knowledge):
I am sure you saw the newspaper article on the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership, Shawn called me today as well and said the You all were funding them. But there is much concern that while the epidemiology, public engagement is well represented with the expertise of the team, there is little experience with monitoring.
But at that point, the deal that McElmurry would lead FACHEP was already sealed. Rose was apparently unaware of the massive financial scope of the sole source project McElmurry was proposing with the State of Michigan. On March 3, 2016, Rose suggested to McElmurry that her team of true Legionella experts, could make great progress on a critical Legionella project in Flint for $30,000, to which McElmurry responded:
I think $30k is certainly reasonable and something we could request as part of FACHEP as long as it fits within the framework of what everyone is trying to do.
Trial testimony revealed McElmurry’s original estimate to the State of a budget of $1 million for FACHEP, immediately ballooned to an opening bid budget of $13 million after he received sole source status.
As discussions through April continued between Dr. Rose’s experienced team and McElmurry’s hand-picked FACHEP team, McElmurry’s obvious lack of knowledge about basic sampling of Legionella in buildings was painfully obvious. After a conference call Dr. Janet Stout summarized her impressions of the McElmurry FACHEP team in an email to Dr. Rose’s team on April 8th 2016:
“….the scientists being tasked with investigating the presence of Legionella in the water of Flint lack the necessary expertise to perform such a study – a study that can withstand the scrutiny that will come from being a state-funded study….. Shawn…said that among this group there were people that may have been retained as expert witnesses related to these lawsuits. …Michele <Swanson> shared that she had been approached by the Michigan State Attorney General’s Office of Special Counsel presumably to serve as an expert that could eventually be called to testify.”
Still mystified about the decision to hand McElmurry control of FACHEP, Dr. Stout then floated the idea that the whole situation was a plot to purposefully hire someone inexperienced that the State could control. She wrote:
These issues are of grave concern to me, as they may be for you. We must remember that what got Flint into trouble in the first place was state and local officials manipulating data and ignoring well validated and accepted policies, procedures, practices and science. This desire to control information led to the crisis in Flint. In my opinion, the only way to save this effort is for Joan to be appointed Principal Investigator.
Within the next few days McElmurry had made it clear to Dr. Rose that he would be leading the project, Cupal (GCHD) was frustrated by the fact “that Shawn has not provided a written plan” even though it “has been requested repeatedly,” and Rose made plans to proceed independently of FACHEP.
Obviously, there is enough intrigue and miscommunication revealed herein to fill a book, but one obvious question is: “Why wouldn’t McElmurry do everything in his power to get Dr. Rose involved with FACHEP in the first place?” Our own interpretation is that McElmurry felt threatened by Dr. Rose at multiple levels. In late December 2015 when Dr. Rose was trying to coordinate work amongst all parties in Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha emailed Dr. Edwards to ask his opinion of her. Edwards immediately wrote back “Joan is awesome” to which Hanna-Attisha replied “Shawn <McElmurry> does not think she is awesome.” In later phone calls and text, Hanna-Attisha explained that McElmurry thought Rose would get too much credit for success on any project, and he wanted to cut her out of Flint research.
If it is discovered that McElmurry did falsify his record, he would also have a need to assemble a team who would not question his lack of qualifications to lead FACHEP. Ironically, that meant that everyone with extensive practical experience with Legionella in drinking water systems would be disqualified. For whatever reason that is exactly what ultimately happened. Dr. Rose was not involved. Dr. Lut Raskin, a University of Michigan superstar faculty member with world class expertise in microbes and opportunistic pathogens in building plumbing , and who also engaged in the Flint Water Crisis mid-2015 (well before McElmurry even heard of the Flint Water Crisis) was also not included on the FACHEP team. McElmurry also claimed that the State of MI would not permit him to have Dr. Edwards on the team–something the State later denied.
FACHEP: Set up for failure?
One might think that such an unfortunate situation could not get any worse, but as the contract negotiations related to the main body of work with FACHEP proceeded throughout 2016, McElmurry testified that FACHEP developed a sense they were being “set up” by the State. This remarkable admission was first made in McElmurry’s November 15th, 2017 testimony:
As time went on, and the project wasn’t fulfilled we were concerned we were being set up to not be able to find anything and then have to pronounce that all was good, there was no problem, in which we would be put on the spot to essentially explain that even though we did all the sampling there was nothing we could tell from it….
Under cross examination McElmurry eventually identified three elements of the “set up” including: 1) a sense that the contract was deliberately slowed, 2) the final funding of ≈$4 million dollars was much less than his initial ask of $13 million, and 3) concerns that the team would not obtain clearance to private patient data for their work. McElmurry even testified that after one meeting, Dr. Zervos (Wayne State) became so frustrated about being “set up” that he recommended FACHEP should “just throw in the towel and go to the media with what was going on at MDHHS.” But McElmurry admitted they did not go to the media “Because I felt like if we did that nobody would (sic) –..” One can only speculate what McElmurry meant by “nobody would (sic).” No one else would have accepted $4 million to do the research, even though the most qualified researchers in the world (Dr. Rose and her team) had been prepared to address the most urgent questions for just $30,000? We wonder if McElmurry ever asked himself, whether his decision to request $13 million to do a project that he initially estimated would cost 13 times less ($1 million), or that an experienced investigator could have done for 10-100 times less, was a key reason the project took months to negotiate?
In any case, McElmurry’s statement that the FACHEP team felt like they were being “set up” for failure by their sponsor, even before the project was signed and their sampling started in late 2016, foreshadowed future difficulties. For instance, the story of a “set up” also conveniently laid a groundwork for McElmurry to blame his own failings on external factors. His testimony also anticipates FACHEP’s later, reckless efforts, to find something wrong with Flint water in 2016-2017, and a refusal to publicly acknowledge Flint water quality was improving.
Update on McElmurry’s Claims
As we began investigating this story 18 months ago, we FOIA’ed numerous documents at Wayne State that could shed light on McElmurry’s work experience, hydraulic model, local knowledge and the archival samples from 2014-2015. After Wayne State repeatedly broke FOIA law and refused to release relevant records, we filed a lawsuit Edwards vs. Wayne State University to compel document production with the assistance of Mackinac pro bono lawyers. Some of requested documents have now been produced as a result of the lawsuit.
Strikingly, there is still not one shred of evidence provided to date, that can support McElmurry’s claim that he worked “in Flint” 2010-2015 or that he personally created a working hydraulic model of the Flint water system before October 2015. In addition to evidence presented elsewhere, there are four very worrisome indications that add to our growing doubts about the veracity of his claims.
- In a letter dated August 16, 2018, WSU Associate General Counsel admitted that McElmurry never had a hydraulic model of the Flint water system in 2015. Rather, WSU now claims that McElmurry was seeking funds in 2015 “to support….the development of a hydraulic model.” This undermines the very rationale Dr. Reynolds used to justify McElmurry’s leadership of FACHEP in the first place.
- WSU pressroom web pages that touted McElmurry’s experiences “in Flint” going back to 2010 have disappeared, leaving behind only a “Oops! Looks like this page can’t be found!” message.
- In response to our questioning McElmurry’s claims, FACHEP member Dr. Ben Pauli of Kettering University claimed in a draft book chapter that he and other activists have no interest “in what McElmurry did or did not do in Flint prior to the water crisis.” Dr. Pauli’s implication, is that it would not be a big deal if McElmurry falsified the story that gained him leadership of FACHEP and millions in sole source research funding—funding that Pauli just happened to benefit from. This is a major shift from the FACHEP storyline presented publicly through spring 2018, which always paid homage to McElmurry’s claim of work in Flint since 2010 (e.g., listen at 7:24 in Dr. Michelle Swanson’s interview on Michigan radio).
We have compiled (attached) a comprehensive listing of sworn testimony about McElmurry’s work experiences “in Flint” for anyone, like us, who thinks it would be a big deal if these statements do not represent the whole truth.
There is one more point we find fascinating and noteworthy. Specifically, where are the results for the analysis of the priceless biological samples (McElmurry and Hollins testimony) which McElmurry supposedly collected in Flint from 2014-2015? The only archival biological samples from Flint described in FACHEP reports, were collected January 26, 2016, weeks after the initial call from Harvey Hollins in which McElmurry claimed to have samples in storage. There was no detectable Legionella in any of these 31 samples—so they were worthless and not priceless. Did McElmurry misrepresent himself to the State again?
In summary, we have been unable to verify any of the main reasons the State was provided for giving McElmurry the leadership role for FACHEP including: the Flint hydraulic model, archival 2014-2015 Flint biological samples for Legionella, or his 2010-2015 work on the ground with Flint residents. And we wonder, just who, exactly, was really being set up for failure on this project: FACHEP, or taxpayers and the MDHHS employees tasked with overseeing McElmurry’s team?
All emails, testimony and relevant documents cited in the article above can be downloaded below:
Primary author: Dr. Marc A. Edwards