Flint Water Whistleblower Wins the Goldman Environmental Prize

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After local authorities began relying on the Flint River as a water source, LeeAnne Walters and her family experienced health problems. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to uncover the real source of the problem. Goldman Environmental Prize

LeeAnne Walters was a stay-at-home mother of four living in Flint, Michigan, when she and her children began noticing troubling health problems in the spring of 2014. Her 3-year-old twins kept breaking out in strange, burning rashes after their bath, and she and her daughters started losing clumps of hair in the shower. Her 14-year-old son was hospitalized several times for severe abdominal pains. At one point, Walters’ eyelashes fell out.

The family was baffled and alarmed, but they couldn’t find a logical cause. It was only months later, after the water from her kitchen sink started running brown, that Walters began to make the frightening connection.

Most of us have heard about Flint, Michigan’s lead-contaminated water debacle. But few know that it was Walters, working relentlessly behind the scenes, who finally exposed the problem and galvanized her community to fight for clean water.

For her work, Walters was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize on April 23 (along with six other grassroots environmental heroes around the world) for her efforts "to not only expose the water crisis in Flint, but shine a light on the lead water crisis around the U.S."

Who says one "ordinary" person can’t make a difference?

Something in the water

The city of Flint was facing a massive deficit in 2014 when it decided to cut costs in April by switching its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. It wasn’t until January 2015 that Walters fattended her first city council meeting after it became increasingly clear her family’s mysterious health issues were related to their discolored tap water. That night she met many other Flint residents with eerily similar health complaints. "At that point I knew it wasn’t just specific to my family," Walters says. "But they weren’t giving us much information at that meeting."

The following month, Walters finally got someone from the city to come test her water. A week later a city employee called to warn her that it contained lead levels of 104 parts per billion, far higher than the 15 ppb allowed by law. However, the city insisted the problem was isolated to her home and initially suggested she hook up a hose to her neighbor’s house for water.

LeeAnne Walters with brown tap water
Walters holds up brown tap water from her kitchen — water that authorities insisted was safe. Goldman Environmental Prize

Walters began doing research on her own, soon learning that no level of lead is considered safe, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The resulting neurological and behavioral impacts can be irreversible. Even worse, she discovered that local industry had long used the Flint River as a dumping ground. What’s more, the city had failed to properly test or treat the corrosive water to prevent it from leaching lead out of Flint’s aging water lines, which connected to half the households in the city.

Panicked, she and her husband, Dennis, who is in the Navy, had their four children tested for lead in March 2015. Each showed high levels of lead exposure and one twin, Gavin, was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Meanwhile, local and state officials, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, continued to assure residents that Flint’s water was safe.

Frustrated and discouraged by the stonewalling, Walters vowed to reveal the truth. "One thing that kept us fighting was that we didn’t want any other family to go through what our family was going through," she says.

She teamed up with the EPA’s Midwest water division manager, Miguel del Toral, and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer with expertise in lead contamination. They agreed they needed irrefutable scientific evidence of water contamination to convince – or force – Flint authorities to take action.

In September 2015 Walters and other citizen scientists began going door to door to collect water samples from residents throughout the city. They took meticulous care to follow carefully crafted procedures that would ensure the results were valid and uncompromised. Altogether, Walters collected more than 800 samples — an impressive 90 percent response rate.

A few weeks later, Walters and Edwards presented their findings at a press conference in front of Flint City Hall, revealing to the world that one in six homes in the city had lead water levels exceeding the EPA’s safety threshold. Some showed lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb, more than double what the EPA classifies as hazardous waste.

In October 2015, Gov. Snyder finally succumbed to public pressure, announcing that Flint would stop using local river water and go back to piping in cleaner water from Lake Huron.

Flint water plant
In 2015, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced that Flint would stop sourcing drinking water from the Flint River. Goldman Environmental Prize

Advocacy continued

For Walters, that was only the beginning. In February 2016, she testified before Congress that lead-contaminated water isn’t simply an issue in Flint; it’s a national problem often hidden because of loopholes in the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) that allows states to get around certain testing regulations. (You can watch her testimony or read the transcript here.)

Her work also spurred a damning investigative report by Reuters in December 2016, indicating that almost 3,000 areas in the U.S. have lead contamination levels at least double those recorded in Flint during the crisis. About a third registered lead levels four times higher.

LeeAnne Walters and family
Walters and her family continue to suffer lingering health effects from lead exposure. Goldman Environmental Prize

Walters and her family, who now reside in Virginia where her husband is currently stationed for the Navy, are still living with the health toll from lead exposure.

"My children are survivors," she says. "The twins are now 7 and are still dealing with hand-eye coordination issues and speech impairment. One still isn’t growing properly. My hair and eyelashes haven’t grown back completely. But we take it day by day, and celebrate the small victories."

Walters continues to spend two weeks a month in Flint overseeing citizen-led water-quality sampling and is currently pushing for federal action to strengthen lead testing rules and water-quality oversight. She also partners with Virginia Tech on a project called the US Water Study, a project partly funded by an EPA grant that helps citizen-scientists in other communities test for lead-contaminated water.

You can learn more about the US Water Study in this video.

Walters’s message? Get your water tested and don’t let officials and experts silence you.

"I don’t have a civil engineering degree — I taught myself about water because I had to," she says. "Everyday people can make a difference."

Other Goldman prize winners:

Walters' persistence is just one example of people making a difference in their communities and beyond. Here are the six other winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize.

Francia Márquez (Colombia): Afro-Colombian community leader who rallied the women of La Toma and pressured the Colombian government to halt illegal gold mining on their ancestral land.

Claire Nouvian (France): Ocean activist whose data-driven advocacy campaign pushed France to support a ban on destructive deep-sea bottom trawling and helped secure an EU-wide ban.

Makoma Lekalakala & Liz McDaid (South Africa): Environmental activists who built a coalition to stop South Africa’s massive nuclear deal with Russia and protect the nation from lifetimes of toxic nuclear waste.

Manny Calonzo (Philippines): Consumer-rights activist who persuaded the Philippine government to enact a national ban on the production, use and sale of lead paint, protecting millions of Filipino kids from lead poisoning.

Khanh Nguy Thi (Vietnam): Sustainable energy activist who partnered with government agencies to reduce coal dependency and helped cut 115 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from Vietnam annually.