The votes are in, and Whistleblower Insider’s 2016 Whistleblower of the Year is LeeAnne Walters, who has worked tirelessly to draw attention to the public-health crisis concerning contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. When city and state officials switched Flint’s water source, it didn’t take long for Walters to realize that something was wrong. Her twin boys broke out in rashes after playing in the pool; her older son had severe abdominal pain; and water started coming out of her pipes with a brownish-orange hue.
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. Del Toral drafted a memo detailing the problems in Flint’s water system, including the lack of corrosion controls. Internally, his memo went nowhere, but when he emailed a copy of the memo 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 others, Edwards’ team collected and analyzed over 800 water samples from Flint. One sample from Walters’ home showed lead levels above 13,000 parts per billion, 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 public-health crisis in Flint and began corrective measures. Since then, several state and local officials have been criminally charged for their involvement in the crisis, and on December 10, 2016, Congress passed a bill providing emergency aid to Flint. Thanks to Walters and other courageous Flint residents, the city is finally starting to recover.
As in years past, competition for the title of Whistleblower of the Year was fierce. Ms. Walters faced off against several commendable nominees, including:
- Daniel Donovan, the former Volkswagen employee who reported on Volkswagen’s alleged destruction of evidence after the EPA accused it of cheating emissions tests;
- Shailene Woodley, the actress/activist who helped bring needed attention to the harsh treatment of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation;
- The Roger Ailes Sexual Harassment Allegations Whistleblowers, the whistleblowers who alleged sexual harassment and misconduct by former Fox News chief Roger Ailes; and
- Yesenia Guitron and Judi Klosek, the whistleblowers who attempted to expose Wells Fargo’s deceptive sales practices including the unauthorized opening of customer accounts.
All of the nominees received their fair share of the votes—well-deserved recognition for their courageous and selfless efforts to stand up for what they believed was right. In the end, however, none could match the outpouring of support for Ms. Walters. As one voter noted, “LeeAnne Walters is a great example of the power of an ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right!”
So congratulations to LeeAnne Walters, 2016 Whistleblower of the Year. We hope that her resolve in standing up for her community and family, as well as the courage demonstrated by all our nominees, inspires more ordinary people to speak up in the face of injustice and demand accountability from those in power. Read Part I of Whistleblower Insider’s interview with LeeAnne Walters.
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