This “Whistleblower Spotlight” features LeeAnne Walters, one of our 2016 Whistleblower of the Year candidates. For over a year, Walters has worked tirelessly to draw attention to the public-health crisis in Flint, Michigan. Due to government incompetence and apathy, Flint residents lived with lead-tainted water for nearly two years. After seeing her own children poisoned by the lead in Flint’s water, Walters decided she had to take a stand. Thanks to her efforts, the crisis in Flint has become a national scandal, forcing Americans to acknowledge that their fellow citizens lived without the most basic of human needs: clean water.
In April 2014, city and state officials—looking to cut costs—switched Flint’s water source. Rather than purchasing water from Detroit, as it had for decades, the city began pumping water from the Flint River. It didn’t take long for Walters to realize that something was wrong. Her twin boys got rashes after playing in the pool; her older son had severe abdominal pain; water started coming out of her pipes with a brownish-orange hue. Walters had seen enough. She contacted the city, and a Flint official came to test her water. One week later, she received a chilling voicemail: “Please, whatever you do, don’t let your kids drink the water.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cities should take action whenever lead levels in water exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb). The water in Walters’ home had tested at 104 ppb. A week later, the official ran a follow-up test: 397 ppb. No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, but these were numbers that Flint officials had never seen before. And the lead was taking its toll on her family. Every week, Walters had to buy 40 gallons of bottled water. Her twins rarely bathed, since it required heating bottled water on the stove, pot by pot, for 45 minutes. Everyone had hair falling out, and one son was diagnosed with lead poisoning.
Walters needed answers. She researched the issue on her own—paging through old water-quality reports—and concluded that Flint was not using necessary corrosion controls in its water system. Fed up with local officials, she reported her concerns to Miguel Del Toral, a water specialist at the EPA. In response, Del Toral drafted a memo detailing the problems in Flint, including the lack of corrosion controls. Internally, his memo went nowhere, but when he emailed a copy to Walters, she immediately forwarded it to a reporter. This leaked memo was the first government acknowledgment that something was wrong with Flint’s water, and out of concern for the people of Flint, Del Toral breached EPA protocol and went on the record about his memo.
But Walters didn’t stop there. She also contacted Marc Edwards, a water-corrosion expert at Virginia Tech. With help from Walters and other residents, Edwards’ team collected and analyzed over 800 water samples from Flint. One sample from Walters’ home showed lead levels above 13,000 ppb, nearly triple the amount that the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. Overall, the tests indicated that one in six Flint households had lead levels above the EPA’s action threshold.
For months, city and state officials had insisted that there was no problem, but the EPA memo and Edwards’ findings placed their judgment under withering national scrutiny. Eventually, the state officially acknowledged the problems in Flint and began corrective measures. Yet Walters kept pushing. In February 2016, she testified before Congress. A month later, during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Flint, she asked the candidates how they would address lead poisoning. Since then, several state and local officials have been criminally charged for their involvement in the crisis, and on December 10, Congress finally passed a bill providing emergency aid to Flint.
For Walters, however, the battle continues. Her husband, a member of the Navy, recently filed a complaint alleging that his superiors have retaliated against him because of her activism. The family now lives in Virginia, where he is stationed, but Walters still drives to Michigan every two weeks to continue her advocacy. Like many Flint residents, she expects that her children will battle the effects of lead exposure for the rest of their lives.
For having the courage and perseverance to stand up for the people of Flint, even when its government failed to do so, we nominate LeeAnne Walters for Whistleblower of the Year.
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