The Tragi-Comedy of McElmurry’s Flint Hydraulic Model

 

The FOIA case Edwards vs. Wayne State University (WSU) continues to shed light on the disturbing story of Dr. McElmurry’s Flint Hydraulic Model, his qualifications, and rigor of FACHEP research.  

We previously detailed how McElmurry’s false claims about possessing a complete Flint hydraulic model in early October 2015, snowballed from first obtaining Dr. Edwards’ assistance to win an NIH grant, to leadership of FACHEP, to numerous examples of McElmurry’s incompetence executing Flint work, to attacks on Dr. Edwards’ reputation, to the crybully FACHEP-instigated felony cases against Wells and Lyon.

On the basis of the evidence we had gathered back in March 2018, a LARA investigator concluded:

… McElmurry overstated his prior involvement in City of Flint’s drinking water system and contamination issues. These overstatements were intended to …substantiate large research awards/funds for Wayne State University and other contributors.

….under oath and in response to the LARA Complaint, McElmurry has been unable to substantiate prior City of Flint experience….these overstatements regarding City of Flint experience are deemed to be “misrepresentations”….

Gathering additional knowledge about McElmurry’s misrepresentations has been impeded by WSU repeatedly violating Michigan FOIA law to hide public documents. Mr. Patrick Wright and Derk Wilcox at Mackinac Center Legal Foundation have forced release of many documents without charge to Flintwaterstudy. We herein provide the latest on McElmurry’s Flint hydraulic model story. 

WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT THE FLINT HYDRAULIC MODEL?

During a drinking water crisis and in its aftermath, predicting how water flows through a city’s potable water distribution system pipes, can help protect public health from lead, Legionella and other health risks. A “hydraulic model” is a computer program, usually based on EPANET software, that allows a user to obtain scientific insights useful for decision-making (e.g., see EPA presentation slides from January 2017).

Creating a complete hydraulic model for a city like Flint requires months to years of effort, detailed local knowledge, and true expertise in software and hydraulics. However, using a hydraulic model is something most undergraduate engineering students can learn in a day or two. EPA regularly hosts workshops teaching novices how to use EPANET hydraulic models.

When Dr. Edwards first started to collaborate with Mr. Howard Croft (Director of Public Works) at the City of Flint, their first email (September 10, 2015) discussed the poor and “in progress” status of Flint’s hydraulic model. Croft sent Edwards a LAN Engineering “water age” map dated January 21, 2015, and told him it was so inaccurate, it should not be shared publicly without a prominent disclaimer it was just a “conceptual map.” Croft told  Edwards the water age was erroneous, because “dozens of valves were frozen shut,” and the map should not be used “for anything scientific.”

Thus, when Dr. McElmurry first introduced himself to Edwards and to NIH a few weeks later (October 7-10, 2015), with a written statement he had “a complete hydraulic model of Flint’s drinking water system” due to “5 years” of work in Flint (see Table below), he was asserting a claim of extraordinary intellectual property and expertise. Mountains were moved by Edwards, the State of Michigan and others, based on McElmurry’s completely false claim, to give McElmurry funding and power that could be used to benefit residents of Flint and assist the disaster response. This put the WSU/McElmurry funding and power grab snowball into motion. Below is an updated timeline of McElmurry’s ever changing claims about Flint hydraulic models.

Updated Timeline of McElmurry’s Conflicting Statements on the Flint Hydraulic Model (Newest information in red)

Date Statement
10/7/2015 Email from McElmurry to Edwards:I have done a fair amount of work on Pb exposure and have worked in Flint in the past. As a result of this past work, I have a working hydraulic model of the Flint drinking water system.”
10/8/2015 Email from McElmurry to Faust: “Kasey, I took a look at the epanet <hydraulic> model of Flint you used for your dissertation. It doesn’t look like it was complete, at least the one you sent me. Do you have a complete model of the system?”
10/8/2015 Email from Faust to McElmurry: “Yes I do- I’ll have to find it on my hard drive when I get home…….Is GIs okay with you?”   <FAUST FORWARDS MCELMURRY COMPLETE HYDRAULIC MODEL>
≈ 10/10/2015 McElmurry written statement to NIH, forwarded to Edwards by email on 10/12/2015. Bold emphasis was in original.  “Over the last 5 years the PI (McElmurry) has conducted research focused on how to best adapt Flint’s existing water infrastructure to changes in population and industrial demand.  As a result of this work, the team already possesses a complete hydraulic model of Flint’s drinking water systemWe will utilize this model….”
11/2/2015 From McElmurry’s NIH Proposal:  “Through previous work by the PI in Flint, the project team has unique access to the Flint water distribution system details..and has initiated the <hydraulic> modeling effort.”
4/22/2016 McElmurry email to City of Flint:  “…it doesn’t make sense for us to continue to develop our EPANET <hydraulic Flint> model….” because EPA is creating one
2/13/2017 McElmurry to co-author on what became the peer reviewed PNAS paper:  “Without the <Flint hydraulic> water model..I am left with..the <January 21 2015> water age map developed by LAN… (of course..<our work> could be improved greatly with a full hydraulic model)…”
8/5/2017 Masten emails McElmurry about what became the PNAS Paper: “EPA has the hydraulic model running-if you could get that…you would have a far better estimate…” of water age. McElmurry would not wait to get the EPA hydraulic model.
10/6/2017 Sworn Testimony of Dr. Larry Reynolds in Lyon, on why he recommended McElmurry to lead FACHEP: “ 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 <2015>..”
2/2018 PNAS Peer Reviewed Paper Description Falsely Implies It Used the Best Available EPA hydraulic model: ..“we develop a monitor-to-parcel assignment algorithm that leverages best available information on parcel occupancy/vacancy, residence time of water (i.e. water age), and the Flint water distribution system pipe network”
3/13/2018 McElmurry Presentation at Michigan State University (MSU) Seminar: Provided first indication, that McElmurry has finally obtained the EPA hydraulic model.
4/30/2018 McElmurry’s written response to LARA Investigator about his false claims back in October 2015: “..it was very confusing what information was available. I had initially thought the City of Flint provided Dr. Abraham, Kasey Faust and me with a fully functioning model of the Flint water distribution system.  ..This understanding turned out to be incorrect.”
8/16/2018 Wayne State University written claim to Edwards:  “McElmurry had no hydraulic …model” in 2015
4/10/2019 McElmurry sworn statements about slides WSU is withholding, from an October 2017 presentation. I “was provided the initial <hydraulic> model pursuant to a memorandum of understanding with the City of Flint. After receiving the model, I modified conditions (input), selected parameters that were reported by the model (output), and presented same at the Symposium.”

To our shock, WSU finally admitted in writing August 8, 2018, that McElmurry never had a Flint “hydraulic model” in 2015. That left two complete hydraulic models of the Flint water distribution system that we are aware of: Dr. Faust’s model which McElmurry obtained October 8, 2015, and the EPA Flint Hydraulic Model created during the Federal Emergency presented at the January 10, 2017 EPA data summit (results are  available online). So we started to wonder about what hydraulic model FACHEP used in their Flint research.

Summary of Flint Water Age Data Sources

Model name Date Available How McElmurry obtained model and its uses
1. LAN Water Age “Conceptual Model” January 21, 2015 Obtained indirectly from Edwards, who it was given to with a caveat it should not be used “for anything scientific.” FACHEP relied on it for drafts of February 2018 FACHEP PNAS paper, and probably the final version of the paper. 
2. Faust Complete Hydraulic Model October 8, 2015 Sent by email October 8, 2015 from Dr. Faust to McElmurry. Used by McElmurry to get Edwards support, win NIH grant, obtain leadership of FACHEP.  
3. EPA Complete Hydraulic Model January 2017 EPA spent months developing this complete hydraulic model during the Federal emergency.  Best estimate is McElmurry obtained this model after PNAS paper was published in early 2018. 

WHAT “HYDRAULIC MODEL” WAS USED IN FACHEP’S PNAS PAPER

In February 2018, FACHEP published a peer reviewed scientific paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) examining the Flint Legionella Outbreak. The PNAS paper implies that it used the “best available” hydraulic model, but cloaks which model in mystery as follows (emphasis added):   

To test the loss of chlorine hypothesis, we develop a monitor-to-parcel assignment algorithm that leverages best available information on parcel occupancy/vacancy, residence time of water (i.e. water age), and the Flint water distribution system pipe network (see Fig. S2).

Did FACHEP use the Faust or the EPA hydraulic model? Incredibly, after spending millions and millions of dollars of NIH and FACHEP funding, we were sickened to discover that it appears the answer is: neither one.

Through FOIA we discovered that the erroneous January 21, 2015 LAN “conceptual model” graph, was given from Croft to Edwards to Mona Hanna-Attisha to Rick Sadler (FACHEP) to Dr. McElmurry. FACHEP then used that erroneous 2015 LAN water age “conceptual model,” for what turned into their PNAS paper.

Internal email discussions of McElmurry and first author on the PNAS paper, Dr. Zahran, openly acknowledge the serious problems with using that erroneous 2015 data obtained from Dr. Edwards. McElmurry suggests that using this data is “a reasonable approach given the limited data we have available (2/13/2017),” and Zahran admits this is really  “the best possible work around in the absence of data required to develop a defensible water model (6/22/2017).” In other words, McElmurry/Zahran know, they are proceeding with a scientific analysis on the PNAS paper without a “defensible hydraulic model.” This is indefensible.

The originators of the January 2015 water “conceptual map” went even further.  In reference to an updated August 2015 version of the Flint hydraulic model, LAN engineering stated (page 16)

“LAN…developed preliminary water age results throughout the entire system. ..However, LAN has also identified several issues affecting the model that require further attention to allow for usable and reliable results. Revised results will be provided when the hydraulic model has been fully updated….in Sept-Oct, 2015.”

This further reinforces the fact that the January 2015 Flint water age map was known to be inaccurate in mid- 2015.

Dr. Masten (MSU), who was a co-author on the PNAS paper, was completely unaware that Dr. Edwards was the source of the January 21, 2015 datafile, or that the city said it should never be used for any scientific analysis. But Dr. Masten determined on her own, that the manuscript was “seriously flawed” due to obvious errors in how it handled “water age.”

On August 5, 2017, Zahran admitted to Masten, that “We were aware of this weakness – that is, reliance on weak water age information….” After Dr. Masten’s stated that they should obtain and use the EPA hydraulic model (available January 2017) to make a “far better estimate of water age,” the authors refused. Therefore, the written claim in the PNAS paper that FACHEP was using the “best available information” for their analysis, appears to be false. The information they were using, was not acceptable for a scientific analysis back in 2015, and it certainly should not have been used for a PNAS scientific paper published February 2018. 

We even found an email from October 28, 2015 from Croft to McElmurry, after Edwards had invited McElmurry into the inner circle of Flint researchers, where it was explicitly documented in writing that the city needed to verify broken valve locations for <the water age hydraulic> model from LAN to be accurate,” and again noting Flint’s hydraulic model was still “in progress.” Dr. McElmurry, was therefore fully aware that the January 2015 LAN conceptual map was unscientific, even as he was telling Edwards and others that he had created a complete Flint hydraulic model. Yet, in 2017, he knowingly used this erroneous data, obtained from Dr. Edwards, as a basis for the PNAS paper.

On December 8, 2017, Dr. Masten explicitly asked whether the water age data from the erroneous January 21, 2015 “conceptual map,” was used as a scientific basis for the PNAS paper analysis. The authors refused to directly answer her question and also would not use the EPA hydraulic model. Dr. Masten courageously withdrew her name from the PNAS paper as a co-author.

HYDRAULIC MODEL SLIDES ARE MCELMURRY’s INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

When the 2018 PNAS paper was published, WSU celebrated their FACHEP crybully hero narrative with an unusual press release:

“This abandonment of basic human and civil rights by those who once had the public trust led to water quality, safety and access issues that endangered the public health. In the midst of this maelstrom, a group of engineers along with medical, public health and social scientists assembled a research team <FACHEP> to pursue answers to problems that others would rather leave unexamined. The authors of these papers….affirmed the higher purpose of science — to expand knowledge and serve the common good.”

Ever since, WSU has made extraordinary efforts, to block better public understanding about this PNAS paper, and the nature of McElmurry’s repeated misrepresentations about the hydraulic model through FOIA. Here is an update on recent revelatory obfuscation.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY?  We previously reported and later updated, the absurd legal gymnastics that WSU is using, to withhold 4 powerpoint slides that Dr. McElmurry presented publicly at a Michigan State University symposium in October 2017. WSU initially claimed that these 4 slides had to be withheld to protect McElmurry’s “intellectual property.” We filed to force release of the 4 slides and WSU/McElmurry has now responded.

WSU admits that 2 of the slides they are fighting to keep hidden, are of McElmurry’s hydraulic model results. In a sworn affidavit April 10, 2019, McElmurry writes (see page 28 of 73, point 15; emphasis added): 

15. Slides 22 and 23 contain results of my manipulations of a <Flint hydraulic> model simulation showing the flow of water within the City of Flint and the pipe network that constitutes the municipal drinking water system within the City. I was provided the initial model pursuant to a memorandum of understanding with the City of Flint. After receiving the model, I modified conditions (input), selected parameters that were reported by the model (output), and presented same at the Symposium.

WSU is now claiming that using a Flint hydraulic model that someone else created, constitutes McElmurry’s “intellectual property.” This is consistent with McElmurry’s past practice, of changing a border on a slide taken from Flintwaterstudy and presenting it as his own work. And we wonder, which hydraulic model was being used in the withheld slides, since as far as we know, only Dr. Faust’s model was available to him at that time? Did he give appropriate credit to whoever created the model, or was he once again, “confused,” implying it was his model?

PROTECTING THE SECURITY AND SAFETY OF THE RESIDENTS OF FLINT?  In response to Dr. Edwards’ offer to sign a non-disclosure agreement for permission to see the slides McElmurry already presented publicly, assuaging McElmurry’s intellectual property claim, WSU created a new argument. WSU stated that releasing the slides could endanger Flint residents to a terrorist attack (page 23 of 73):

…exemption exists in order to protect…capabilities and plans for responding to a violation of the Michigan anti-terrorism act…Once released, even on a limited basis,..the City of Flint’s ability to protect the safety and security of its residents is compromised. …slides 22 and 23 are subject to protection for this additional reason.

Interestingly, EPA posts slides of its Flint hydraulic model simulations on the internet and freely shares Flint hydraulic model presentations with anyone requesting them. We can only imagine, what on earth, could McElmurry have entered into the hydraulic model, developed by someone else, that created “top secret” intellectual property that could wreak havoc in the hands of terrorists plotting to attack Flint? And if it was “top secret,” why did McElmurry present it publicly, at a graduate research symposium? By their own definition, they’ve clearly committed a major security breach.   

Dr. ROY HYDRAULIC MODEL FOIA SAGA. For more than a year, we have been trying to get emails about possible conflicting statements McElmurry made to his WSU colleagues, related to Faust’s hydraulic model (see details here). The latest excuse to Dr. Roy? The cost to produce a few weeks of emails from October 2015 and two other documents, would be $6,710.65.  

DR. McELMURRY’s TRUE HYDRAULIC MODELING EXPERTISE REVEALED

Potentially adding insult to injury, for those harmed directly and indirectly by McElmurry’s misrepresentations, a witness recently disclosed to us that Dr. McElmurry attended a September 2018 EPA workshop, intended to train novices who want to learn how to use an EPANET hydraulic model. The witness also claimed to have an email, listing the EPANET trainees, that includes Dr. McElmurry. We have submitted a FOIA to obtain this document.

If this story from our reliable source proves to be true, it would a fitting ending to this tragi-comedic real life story of McElmurry’s hydraulic model. The same person who falsely claimed to have created extraordinary intellectual property in the form of a “complete Flint hydraulic model” back in October 2015, but who then likely used flawed “water age” data from a January 2015 “conceptual model” via Dr. Edwards for a PNAS peer reviewed paper, finally attends an EPA workshop in September 2018 geared towards helping novices learn the basics of how to use a hydraulic model.

All documents cited above:

Primary Author: Dr. Marc A. Edwards

4 thoughts on “The Tragi-Comedy of McElmurry’s Flint Hydraulic Model

  1. Marc: PNAS Reviewers seem to have dropped the ball in letting McElmurry’s paper be published without sufficient detail on the hydraulic model methodology. That coupled with McElmurry’s apparent secretive stance on those details effectively ensures that no other researchers can or will ever reproduce his analysis.

    McElmurry’s tentative-sounding e-mail dated 2/13/17 where he broadly outlines a methodology ( and optimistically asks “does this sound like a reasonable approach given the limited data we have available? “) seems like the most detail he provided to his team, perhaps outside of the mystery slides that he is vigorously guarding. Since Masten seems to have the most expertise in the hydraulic modeling area, yet had the greatest reservations regarding his methodology, this indicates great haste to publish at any cost. It was certainly courageous for Susan to ask her name be removed when other authors such as Zahran seemed to brush off her concerns.

    Based on McElmurry’s assertion that slides 22-23 contain his “modified conditions (input), selected parameters that were reported by the model (output), and presented same at the Symposium.” and the revelation that he seems to have registered for Novice level training on hydraulic model methodologies it seems highly likely that slides 22-23 contain some evidence of major flaws of methodology. In fact, the flaws must likely be sufficiently significant that he (I.e. WSU) is willing to invoke alleged terrorist prevention (thats truly humorous) rationales to avoid having the scientific or lay public see those.

    This is a curious egg that you’ve cracked open here and it’s quite interesting to see what’s inside. The final mystery is what McElmurry is fighting so valiantly to keep private about his methodology and WHY.

  2. Opening the curious egg will likely prove anti-climatic.

    When they first started to withhold the 4 slides back in March 2018, they were still trying to maintain an illusion, that McElmurry had a 2015 Flint hydraulic model. When I first read the PNAS paper in February 2018, in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined the entire analysis was done without a defensible hydraulic model.

    WSU has since admitted in writing, that the 2015 McElmurry complete Flint hydraulic model, never existed.

    And when they first withheld the slides, WSU also did not want it known, McElmurry had a habit of taking intellectual property from others, and implying it was his own. But that has now been proven from other lines of evidence.

    They frequently say it is the cover up that gets you. Can you imagine the legal and financial resources that WSU has spent, fighting to keep those 4 slides secret? Their 73 page ode to obfuscation, discussed in this blog, is a truly desperate effort, to keep the “Wayne Cares for Flint” brand myth alive.

    When we finally do crack that curiosity open, what will prove most memorable, is the rotten egg odor, and how much worse it became by an additional 13+ months of souring.

    • Thx for the Easter chuckle! And also thanks for sharing this CNN digital-documentary on small town water systems: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1SrzQWvSEuw

      In the same way Dr. Faust’s thesis informs us about the risks in larger post-industrial urban systems, this was a real eye-opener on the risks faced by smaller communities.

      Make one wonder which countries have figured out how to solve these problems (perhaps select European?). It’s great work deserving of support. Enjoy your Easter weekend!

  3. Pertaining to Point IV. Disclosure of Slides 22 and 23… (pages 19-20 of the Wayne State Response:
    http://flintwaterstudy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Model-WSU-Response.pdf)

    Interesting, Dr. McElmurry now claims that he does not have to disclose the content of slides 22 and 23 because to do so “would jeopardize the security and safety of the residents of Flint”. He apparently did not believe this to be the case when he presented the slides to a room full of symposium attendees. Remember, the symposium was in a public building and there was no control on admission to the room. While Dr. McElmurry has stated that he asked that photos not be taken during his presentation, as far as I know there was no security personnel in the room to ensure that this request was honored. In fact, I know that later in the day, Dr. McElmurry took a photograph of one of the speakers and his slide and then sent that to a colleague. Therefore, if the material in these slides were sensitive, Dr. McElmurry would have jeopardized the security and safety of Flint residents by presenting this information in an open forum.

    WSU claims that the contents of slides 22 and 23 “fall clearly within” the exception mentioned above and, therefore, these slides cannot be released. WSU further states that to do so would violate chapter LXXXIII-A of the Michigan penal code, 1931 PA 328, MCL 750.543a to 750.543z. I have not seen the slides, but if WSU’s claim is true it is likely that presenting the slides in a public forum would also violate the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-188, Title IV— Drinking Water Security and Safety).

    If Dr. McElmurry’s claim is true, I believe that access to the material presented would be restricted under Export Control regulations. Since there was no security that restricted access to the room in which the symposium was held to those individuals with Export Control training, and it is inconceivable that all personnel that were present had been trained in proper Access Control procedures and that an Access Control Plan was in place, either WSU’s argument that the material in these slides is sensitive is spurious or the release of this material at Dr. McElmurry’s presentation could have violated Federal and State law.

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