The Engineers Who Uncovered Wrongdoing in Flint, Mich., and at Volkswagen

Research teams at Virginia Tech and West Virginia were first to expose lead-tainted water and emissions manipulation

23 February 2016

The Institute would like to pay tribute to the teams of engineers at Virginia Tech and West Virginia University that exposed big scandals in recent months.

Engineers at Virginia Tech in September were the first to detect alarming amounts of lead coming from Flint, Mich., water taps after officials there had switched the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River. After the change, lead and other contaminants leached from pipes flowing into homes. Lead exposure can cause developmental and other health problems, particularly in children. Many effects of lead poisoning are irreversible, according to the World Health Organization.

And after a team of engineers at West Virginia University, in Morgantown, examined Volkswagen diesel models, the German car giant admitted it cheated on tests to hide the amount of nitrogen oxide its vehicles were emitting. Nitrogen oxide causes air pollution and can lead to adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased symptoms in people with asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DIRTY WATER

According to a 6 February article in The New York Times, the Virginia Tech team’s findings prompted Flint officials to publicly acknowledge the crisis in October and warn residents not to drink or cook with tap water. Flint’s water woes have yet to be fixed.

The Virginia Tech researchers also became concerned about the possibility that the water was causing Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia. As it turned out, state officials had been aware of a spike in Legionnaires’ cases after the switch in water source, but the public was not told until January.

In the Times article, Flint resident Melissa Mays said the Virginia Tech researchers “became the only people that citizens here trust, and it’s still that way.” Resident LeeAnne Walters added that she suspected little would have been done to protect residents if not for the researchers: “They cared about the people. That’s why Virginia Tech has all the trust.” Some residents said they will not believe that the water is safe until they hear it from the researchers.

Flint’s water situation could result in criminal charges as serious as involuntary manslaughter.

DIRTY CARS

Researchers at the West Virginia University Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines, and Emissions in 2014 won a US $50,000 grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation to conduct performance testing on diesel cars. They had developed a device that can measure an engine’s emissions performance while the car is traveling—instead of being on rollers, as such tests typically are done.

The researchers noticed during their tests that the emission values obtained by the EPA for Volkswagen’s diesel cars were much lower than those of the cars they were testing, according to an article on Motherboard. Further investigation found that Volkswagen had rigged its diesel cars so they could emit up to 40 percent more nitrogen oxide than acceptable levels without detection during on-rollers testing. Volkswagen acknowledged in October that as many as 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide were equipped with so-called defeat devices to fool regulators.

In testimony before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations panel in October, Michael Horn, Volkswagen’s chief U.S. executive, blamed a handful of software engineers for the emissions fraud, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. But many people who said they didn’t believe that statement came to the software engineers’ defense.

“There are not rogue engineers who unilaterally decide to initiate the greatest vehicle emission fraud in history,” said Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Recently uncovered Volkswagen internal communications suggest that company executives pursued a strategy of delay and obfuscation with U.S. regulators after being confronted in early 2014 with evidence that its diesel vehicles were emitting more pollutants than allowed, according to documents first reported on by the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag and since reviewed by The New York Times. What Volkswagen’s engineers did or didn’t do is still being investigated.

I’d like to shine a spotlight on the many engineers who are doing the right thing every day.

This blog has been updated.

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