Here is Part II of our interview with Whistleblower Insider’s 2016 Whistleblower of the Year winner — LeeAnne Walters. After seeing her own children poisoned by the lead in Flint’s water, Walters decided she had to take a stand. Since then, Ms. Walters has worked tirelessly to draw attention to the public-health crisis in Flint. Here is how Ms. Walters details first-hand her experience as a whistleblower, her advice others, and her vision for what comes next. Click here to read Part I.
Whistleblower Insider: Was there anything in your background that made it more likely for you to be a whistleblower? Or do you think it was just a product of circumstance?
LeeAnne Walters: I don’t know. I’ve always kind of been an honest person, always, always always. I can’t tell you how many times in my life this has gotten me in trouble. It’s who I am, how I was born. Funny thing is, the thing that has always gotten me in trouble was the one thing that has been the best thing in this fight. So there’s that.
In 2009, me and my husband had experienced a stillborn child. We’d never heard anything about still-borns; we’d never seen a whole lot about it. And we realize now that 1 in 4 women will have a stillbirth. People don’t realize that number. I didn’t when it happened to us. And so before all of this happened, I was a stay at home mom taking care of four kids, I was doing a lot of advocacy for stillbirths because there’s such a taboo against it. People don’t want to face the fact that their children can have mortality. Yes, it sucks, and yes, it hurts, but just because my daughter’s not here, doesn’t mean she’s not my daughter. People feel very alienated and alone during that time.
I lived it, I experienced it, I know it, but to me, what I was doing in Flint came from that experience. I’ve already lost one child, I’m not going to lose the rest of them. I kind of feel like it all plays together, so if I have to be a whistleblower or something, I’m not going to back down from it.
When we went to the City about Gavin’s lead poisoning, we were offered money to show up and go away—damage claims. When we refused that, in order to get them to replace my service line, they had given me a contract and wanted me to sign away all of my children’s rights and all of our rights about anything lead related. They called it the “Hold-Harmless Agreement.” They told me it was standard. After reading the first paragraph, I’m like, “Screw you, this is not standard, I’m not signing this.” And so there was this huge cat and mouse game of “oh, we were going to send people out to fix your service line but you didn’t sign the contract.” At this point, the City had come out and shut my water off, hooked us up to garden hoses to my neighbor’s house, and told us it would be three or four days. We went five and a half weeks like that because we refused to sign the agreement and refused to take money.
At one point, they had my city council rep come over to my house, and basically threatened to call Child Protective Services on me, telling me that I was putting my children in harm’s way by not signing this contract and that I wasn’t looking out for my children’s best interest by allowing my children to continue to be poisoned because I wouldn’t sign this agreement. And that he would hate to see something happen. And so I told him to go screw himself and get out of my house and never step on my property again.
So we had that interaction and I told my husband, “You know, they must really be afraid of all of this. This is so much bigger than we realize.” Like, if they’re threatening us like this because we’re not doing what they want, this has got to be bigger than any of us ever expected. And so we kept fighting, and here we are.
Whistleblower Insider: As you’ve gotten more attention, obviously there’s been so much national attention on Flint now, have you experienced any additional backlash or things negatively, things you didn’t expect coming your way?
LeeAnne Walters: Well, you guys are aware of the issues relating to the Navy. I never thought that we’d be fighting for our livelihood after fighting for our lives. I can’t go into detail on that because that is an ongoing investigation. We were totally blindsided by that. We never even considered that as a possibility in this. But we did the right thing and we wouldn’t change anything that we did.
I wish [Flint] would’ve listened to us sooner. People think this is such a great victory and to be honest with you, it is, and it’s not. Because to me, we knew April of 2015, we tried to tell people, we tried to get the word out, hoping people would believe us. The State and the City discredited us every which way they could, the media wouldn’t listen to us. We didn’t take the money. We didn’t do the things they wanted us to do because we knew what our family was going through and we were trying to stop it from happening to anyone else. We didn’t want anyone else’s family to go through what our family did.
This has never been just a “this is about me and my family” thing and it never will be. And so, every time a mother comes to me, telling me the issues that their child has, that her child is diagnosed with lead poisoning in September of 2015 to January of 2016 and the problems their child is facing, it breaks my heart because it didn’t have to happen. There was a whole reason why we didn’t take the million dollars and walk away.
One of the positive things that has come out of this was Flint gets a really bad name for all the terrible, negative things that go on there. And I’m not saying bad things don’t happen there, they do. But, the way the community came together, and the way all the citizens fought and worked together to accomplish such an amazing feat, that was the best thing to come out of Flint and the fact people now realize that the “why” it happened to Flint is an anomaly, but the “how” isn’t. Like “why” it happened is because they were breaking laws, but the fact that the infrastructure is so bad and that there’s so many loopholes and problems in lead and copper rules, and they’ve known about it for at least 15 years that nobody has bothered to fix because they don’t want to or it wasn’t a priority. And to make it known to the United States that this isn’t a “Flint” problem, that this is a United States problem. Those are the two best things. People have been fighting for this for 15-20 years and they could never get any leeway. And so those are the two great things that came out of this.
Whistleblower Insider: That’s a really good point. On another note, what things would you do differently now after what you’ve gone through. Would you do it all again?
LeeAnne Walters: Yeah, in a heartbeat. There’s not a question in my mind. Maybe some of the people I trusted along the way. I’m a gut person, and my gut is usually not wrong. The only time I usually get in trouble is when I don’t listen to my gut, so I blame myself for not listening to my gut on a few things along the way on this crazy journey, especially in the beginning. Other than that, no I would not. Our lives have been turned upside down. Our lives have become water now, but I wouldn’t change it besides my children being poisoned, obviously, and the City being poisoned. But as far as fighting to do what was right—absolutely not.
Whistleblower Insider: Any advice that you’d share with potential whistleblowers, especially if they’re unsure of what to do?
LeeAnne Walters: Document. Document EVERYTHING, even if it seems insignificant, keep track of it. Keep a timeline. Keep pictures. Get as much information as you can.
And you’ve got to find the right person in every group. The EPA gets a bad name. Yeah there are a lot of bad people in the EPA, but there’s also a lot of good people in the EPA too. It’s like everything in life, you have your good apples and your bad apples. So, if the first person you deal with in EPA sucks, or whatever group or organization you’re with sucks and isn’t taking you seriously, don’t stop there. Keep looking for that person that is going to listen to you, that is going to hear you, that is going to take you seriously. And you will be successful.
If I stopped at the first couple of people I encountered with the EPA, I don’t know where we would be. If I would’ve listened to the City, the State and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality telling them that everything was fine, and that us citizens were crazy, just watching this stuff happen to my family on a daily basis, then we wouldn’t be where we are. I’m not saying my family specifically. I’m saying we as a whole. So, the biggest thing is to document everything and know what you’re talking about. And you’ve got to find the person that is willing to listen to you. They are out there, I promise. Trust me, we got a lot of defeats from this before we got some of the victories.
Whistleblower Insider: Pivoting a little bit, you’ve had some really big platforms to speak out on the water crisis: testifying before Congress and the Michigan legislature and then speaking at the Democratic presidential debate in Flint. On a personal level, what has the experience been like for you?
LeeAnne Walters: Nerve racking, I hate public speaking (laughter). The biggest thing for me, what I hope everybody takes away from this story: everyday citizens can make a difference. You just have to put the work in. And that’s what I want people to take away from this. That’s what this experience has taught me. If you know something is wrong, follow your gut. You can make a difference even if you’re going against some pretty big enemies here.
Whistleblower Insider: Did you ever picture yourself being at the forefront or in the spotlight of a movement of this magnitude?
LeeAnne Walters: No. When this started, I decided to do the scientific work and I was partnered with somebody who did media stuff because I know you need the media too, and media wasn’t my forte. Like, I never saw myself [being in the spotlight]. That was never anything I wanted. I like doing the research and the grunt work and figuring out the A to B to C.
Whistleblower Insider: How has this experience impacted your family and the people you know in Flint?
LeeAnne Walters: Well, there’s a lot of health issues that people are dealing with in Flint and health issues that my family is dealing with, that we see every day in our kids. And so, on some levels, it’s frustrating, on some levels it’s heart breaking.
One of the biggest things that I’ve had to instill in my children through this is that I will not allow them to have a victim mentality. They’re only allowed to have a survivor mentality. And I say that because at five years old or six years old, they don’t understand that quite yet. But when Gavin doesn’t want to do something, and he’s struggling really badly with his hand eye coordination issues, and both of them have severe speech impediments, so when they don’t want to work on things to try and help, they’re like, “I’ve got lead poisoning so I can’t.” And I tell them, “No, you can, it’s just going to be harder. You have to work harder for this. And you’re going to do it. And we’re going to get you there. It’s just going to take a little bit more work on your part.”
And on a five year old level it’s frustrating because their attention span is like nothing. But that’s been the big struggle in this is trying to get people not be in that victim mentality because getting stuck there and going down that rabbit hole is a very dangerous thing. That part has been hard.
One of the things that we’re still fighting for in the City of Flint—which I don’t feel like we should be fighting hard for, yet here we are—is that anybody over the age of 21 is getting zero medical coverage. No medical care over the age of 21, and we have adults who have been severely affected: eye strokes, blood pressure problems, liver problems, kidney problems. And they’re not getting what they need unless they’re paying for it out of their own pocket for something that was done to them. And that is unacceptable. And that’s why we keep fighting.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you feel like after all of this that the government has finally started to act and implement practices to help the people of Flint and to ensure something like this never happens again? If not, what would you like to see happen in the future?
LeeAnne Walters: No. It has not. Because we’re named a “man-made disaster” instead of a natural disaster. Flint did not get the necessary things that we needed. We got severely short-changed. And even though it was clarified that it was a man-made disaster, it wasn’t one of our own doing, so we should not continue to suffer because of that.
As far as the necessary changes, the lead and copper rule still is not fixed. The loopholes are still there. They still exist, and people are still allowed to test water in a way that will hide and minimize lead. I’ve been researching and trying to gather from every state, a guidance sheet, and I’m still a few states short. But I can tell you sitting here today, there are only 10 states that I can verify that test in accordance with the law. So, I don’t see where anything has changed as far as making sure this never happens again. That’s why I’ve made it my personal mission that I continue to fight to make sure the necessary changes are done with the lead and copper rules to make sure this never happens again because it doesn’t have to happen. The problem is people don’t want to have to be responsible or to spend the amount of money to fix the problem.
Whistleblower Insider: Well, congratulations again on winning Whistleblower of the Year. You certainly deserve the recognition, and this has been a fantastic conversation. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share?
LeeAnne Walters: I want people to realize that they are at risk. I’m not trying to scare anybody, but you don’t really know what’s in your water. With these tests being done and laws that they’ve known about for 15-20 years, we need people everywhere to realize that yes, this can happen to you, and yes, this could be happening to you right now. And we need people to come together to make sure these changes happen.
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