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Virginia Tech students, Flint citizens work together to build community

March 13, 2016

Doctoral student Anurag Mantha fills out a water sample testing kit with Lee-Anne Walters (center) in the home of Flint resident Keri Webber. Walters first contacted Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards after she grew concerned by her home's tap water.

Anurag talking with Flint resident
Doctoral student Anurag Mantha fills out a water sample testing kit with Lee-Anne Walters (center) in the home of Flint resident Keri Webber. Walters first contacted Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards after she grew concerned by her home's tap water.

While volunteering over spring break, Virginia Tech students learned that personal character and telling the truth about scientific evidence can change history.

For six days, a team of civil and environmental engineering students worked alongside citizen volunteers in Flint, Michigan, hearing stories of frustration and triumph, while collecting water samples for another round of lead testing.

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The primary goal of this second round of testing is to see how lead levels in Flint have changed since appropriate corrosion control has been added to the system, and since the city has been reconnected to Detroit’s water source, Lake Huron. Virginia Tech will announce the second round of results in the next two weeks.

The team of students, researchers, and citizens spent hours each day, sometimes frantically, making phone calls, visiting homes, and sharing a deep sense of trust that was built by Marc Edwards, Charles E. Lunsford professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and his Flint Water Study team.

“This experience made me realize that enormous strength and support is needed to overcome the sickness overtaking the whole structure of educational and governmental sectors evolving around public welfare,” said Sara Chergaoui of Morocco, a visiting undergraduate student in civil and environmental engineering.

“The premises on which public safety is built seem to be affected by human character more than science and engineering. Though, science and engineering remain valid tools to prevail the ‘truth,’” Chergaoui said.

 

Professor Marc Edwards (center) and doctoral student William Rhoads examine the plumbing in Flint resident Nora Carthan's basement.

Marc Edwards blows on pipe
Professor Marc Edwards (center) and doctoral student William Rhoads examine the plumbing in Flint resident Nora Carthan's basement.

Next month will mark two years since the city of Flint switched its drinking water source to the Flint River – a move that jeopardized the city’s drinking water and the health of its residents.

This move also led Edwards and his team to mobilize a community that had been silenced by state and city officials.

“We know we can trust Virginia Tech,” said Tonya Williams, a citizen volunteer who was born and raised in Flint. “It has taken all of us working together to accomplish what we have so far. None of us could have done it alone.”

Maggie Carolan in Flint
Maggie Carolan (center), a sophomore water resources, policy, and management major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, distributes a water sample kit in Flint.

The first round of testing was done in August 2015 when Edwards found elevated lead levels in a random sample of 269 Flint homes.

Late last summer, in collaboration with Flint citizens, Edwards and his team were able to collect samples from homes well distributed throughout the city. This kicked off the Flint Water Study team’s citizen science initiative, which put Flint citizens in partnership with Virginia Tech researchers to enable them to find the truth about the safety of their water supply.

This partnership continued last week and was directed by Lee-Anne Walters, a former Flint resident and concerned mother, who currently leads the citizen-based initiative on the ground in Flint.

“We had an amazing experience with the students,” Walters said, while adding that the citizens argued over getting to spend time with them.

“Virginia Tech has our utmost respect,” Walters said. “To be able to work with them on a personal level makes us feel like we are all part of real team. We’re all helping to make a difference. We’re all a family now.”

At a news conference Friday in Flint, Edwards said the goal was to get at least 100 samples over a three-week time period from the original 269 homes. In just this past week, the team surpassed this goal by obtaining 168 samples. 

Written by Cassandra Hockman

Professor Marc Edwards works on the plumbing in the home of Flint resident Nora Carthan after growing curious about her low water pressure. Edwards had the piping in Carthan's home replaced because he wanted to study why her home's water had the highest lead levels of any location his team sampled in the initial round of testing.

Marc Edwards, William Rhoads
Professor Marc Edwards works on the plumbing in the home of Flint resident Nora Carthan after growing curious about her low water pressure. Edwards had the piping in Carthan's home replaced because he wanted to study why her home's water had the highest lead levels of any location his team sampled in the initial round of testing.

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