LeeAnne Walters: Water Warrior

When it takes 45 minutes just to prep for a bath because you have to use bottled water, and bath time is only once a week because bottled water is expensive, so you use baby wipes for the rest of the week, you’re someone who will do what it takes to keep her kids safe. Meet LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mom of four. Now she’s also a self-proclaimed water activist whose dogged determination uncovered the Flint water crisis.

It all started in April 2014 when – to save money — the Michigan city’s water source was switched from Detroit’s water to the Flint River, a known former dumping ground for General Motors.

It took a while for Walters to realize the water was poisoning her family. Her three-year-old twin boys kept breaking out in rashes and one of them even stopped growing. Her eyelashes fell out, the entire family was losing hair, and her 14-year-old was in and out of the hospital for a month due to severe abdominal pain. At her daughter’s high school graduation party, everyone broke out in rashes after swimming and drinking the water.

Then the water came out of the taps brown. Walters stocked up on bottled water and symptoms eased. When she complained, the city told her the system was being winterized. In January 2015, Walters received a notice from Flint officials that the city’s water had high levels of trihalomethanes, a byproduct of a disinfectant used to treat the water. The notice warned that the sick and elderly were at increased risk, but claimed the water was safe to drink nonetheless.

Needless to say, Walters knew something wasn’t right. She attended her first city council meeting, where the city continued to insist that there was nothing to worry about. Walters had been told that the issue was specific to her home, but when she saw others at the meeting with similar complaints, she realized this wasn’t the case.

Walters then teamed up with other Flint residents to stage protests outside City Hall. They called themselves the Water Warriors. In February 2015, the city finally sent an employee to test the water coming from Walters’ taps – and only because she kept bugging them to do so. This was almost a year after the water was switched, for those keeping track. A few days later, she got a voice mail from the Water Department telling her to keep her kids away from the water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there’s no safe level of lead in drinking water. The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Guess what the test results found in Walters’ water? Nearly 400 ppb.

At this point, Walters wanted to get the kids tested for lead poisoning, only the doctor wouldn’t cooperate. When the tests were finally conducted, the kids were said to be fine. No one would give her the numbers, however. It took her four-and-a-half months to get this information – which was that the kids were most definitely not fine. In the category of “things that make you go hmm,” Walters later discovered that the pediatrician’s wife was Flint’s Emergency Manager’s Assistant.

Meanwhile, the city’s initial response was to hook up a garden hose to her neighbor’s house so the family could have water. The city was still insisting that the issue likely had to do with the Walters’ plumbing – which, by the way, was all new, because they had it put in when they bought the house.

Even after the blood test results were in, the governor’s office assured residents that the water system met all standards. Walters – a high school graduate who trained as a medical assistant – began researching lead exposure. In her words, this meant putting on the hat of water activist. To make the officials listen, she knew she had to get to the science of the issue. This meant lots of long hours and long, sleepless nights.

As Walters went through reams of Flint water quality reports, she learned that the water was more corrosive than Detroit tap water. Typically, there are standard chemicals added to the water to prevent corrosion from aging pipes leaking into the water supply. This wasn’t done for Flint. She also realized that when the city employee tested her water, the tap had been run for several minutes, thereby making the results less accurate.

Out of frustration, Walters called a manager at EPA’s Midwest water division in March 2015. She emailed him water quality reports from the previous year. He was shocked and put her in touch with an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech. This expert told her to collect new samples, and to do so without running the tap first. The number that came back was astonishing: There were lead concentrations of 13,200 ppb. This is more than twice the level that the EPA classifies as hazardous waste.

The wheels were starting to turn. The Virginia Tech guy conducted field tests while the EPA employee informed the MI Department of Environmental Quality of what was going on. A local pediatrician began researching levels before and after the water switch. Walters received a draft report from the EPA, which she forwarded to an investigative reporter she had met who worked for the ACLU of Michigan.

By September, there was more proof that this was a large-scale problem. One in six Flint homes had levels exceeding the safe threshold. The pediatrician determined that the rate of children under the age of five with elevated lead concentrations dramatically increased.

The state was still not convinced, yet in mid-October 2015, the water was switched back to Detroit’s water supply. Then President Obama declared a State of Emergency so Flint could receive funds. Residents started class action suits against city and state officials; the Supreme Court gave them the green light in March 2018. Walters testified at a congressional hearing. Despite all this, lead levels remained above federal standards. In June 2017, six officials were slapped with criminal charges. The state had been distributing free bottles of water, but recently stopped. Repairs on the contaminated water system still aren’t finished. Flint has been counting how many days they’ve gone without clear water. As of April 17, 2018, it’s been 1,454 days.

About this, Walters says it’s appalling and disturbing “on SO many levels that we are still fighting for what most people take for granted. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to only use bottled water in your life for everything for three days to see how our lives have changed. It shows how truly broken our system is and that we need more people to stand up for Justice for Flint!”

Walters now lives in Virginia, but hasn’t abandoned her cause. She even helped start a nonprofit called C Do to help with the after effects of the Flint water crisis. She told Mother Jones that the hardest thing is not knowing how lead exposure will affect her kids in the long-term. One of her twins used to be energetic, but he lost his appetite and was lethargic. At the time of the interview in 2016, he only weighed 35 pounds compared to his twin’s 53. He also mispronounces words he used to be able to say easily.

But Walters explains she would do it all over again in a heartbeat. “Our lives have been turned upside down,” she said. “Our lives have become water now, but I wouldn’t change it besides my children being poisoned, obviously, and the city being poisoned. As far as fighting to do what was right – absolutely not.”

She’s most proud of the small part she’s contributed to the many people who have been fighting against lead in water for the last 20 years. “We can not allow it to ever be forgotten, only fixed!” she says.

In a law firm interview, Walters advises others to document everything even if it seems insignificant, and to find the right person in every group. What she wants others to take away is that everyday citizens can make a difference. “You just have to put the work in,” she said. “If you know something is wrong, follow your gut.”