Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
LeeAnne Walters on her year of activism: “I never thought we’d be fighting for our livelihoods after fighting for our lives.”
To an outsider, what was broken in Flint might seem to be fixed. On Tuesday, two of the city's former emergency managers were charged for their contributions to the lead-in-water crisis that affected nearly 100,000 residents. The week before, congressional Republicans closed a year-long investigation into what went wrong, finding Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency equally at fault for failing to enforce proper water treatment practices and prevent leaching pipes. That came days after Congress approved $170 million to help the city rebuild—a sum that came after months of partisan haggling. In August, Flint’s federal emergency declaration expired. About 600 pipes have been replaced.
In truth, though, Flint’s nightmare is ongoing. Tens of thousands of corroded lines remain in place. Taps in many households are now testing at safe lead levels, but many others are still not safe to drink from or bathe in. Children and adults continue to struggle with lead exposure’s devastating cardiovascular and neurological effects, in addition to psychological trauma. Water bills are still roughly double the national average. And the EPA’s controversial rules on lead—as well as the regulatory structures that let officials delay action—remain far from reformed.
That’s why LeeAnne Walters won’t let up her fight. Walters is the mother of four who first exposed Flint’s staggering lead levels to EPA officials after the city and the state failed to respond. Her heartbreaking testimony before Congress in February (embedded above), and hard-nosed question she posed at the presidential debate in March made her the national face of the crisis. In recent months, she’s stepped onto the conference circuit to raise awareness about her city’s ongoing struggle and the disturbing prevalence of lead elsewhere. If “Flint” is now a synecdoche for a special breed of American tragedy, it is partly thanks to Walters.
But in some ways, her work is getting harder. Public attention and donations to Flint have waned. The effects of lead exposure crop up for her sons every day. And in November, Walters’ husband, a Navy sailor, filed a complaint claiming he has faced retaliation at work because of her activism—an outcome Walters never imagined when she started speaking out to protect her children.
At the end of an extraordinary, exhausting year, CityLab checked in with Walters about her fight, her family, and the value of activism.
LeeAnne, it’s good to talk with you. How is your family doing?
My boys are still struggling on a daily basis. Gavin [whose blood tests revealed lead poisoning] is still not growing properly—he is just 39 pounds at nearly 6 years old. Both have hand-eye coordination issues and speech impairments. Before they weren’t having any behavioral issues, but now they do. One day, Garrett [also exposed to lead levels seven times the federal standard] flew into a rage and started trying to choke me. He’s now done that multiple times. That lack of impulse control is related to lead poisoning. When he broke his arm in September, you could see the lead lines on his bones. One of the things we’re trying to do is coordinate bringing the kids to an expert in Atlanta to evaluate what to do next.
It sounds like a nightmare.
There are days when it’s gut-wrenching. We took the twins recently to go see Santa. I haven’t put it online yet, but I have a photo of them standing next to each other—we know there is a difference between their sizes, but the way this photo captured it … I am struggling with it.
How aware are your boys about what’s going on?
They are very much aware. After we did an interview with Dr. Sanjay last January, the boys were sitting there when it replayed on CNN. Garrett turned to me and asked, “Is everyone poisoned, or is it just the kids in Flint?” And I said, “Well, it’s the people in Flint.” He started crying and said, “I don’t want to die.” I had to explain, at a 4-year-old’s level, that he wasn’t going to die, but that there would be some obstacles to overcome after what has happened.
But instead of dwelling on that, we teach them to be survivors. I refuse to let them have a victim’s mentality. We turn it around and continue to fight, because we can’t let this ever happen again.
The last time I saw you was at one of the congressional hearings on Flint. How has your fight shifted since you testified?
It hasn’t changed that much. I’ve been traveling more—once or twice a month, on top of going to Flint [Walters and her sons live part-time in Virginia, where her husband is based], to speak at panels, do award ceremonies, trying to keep Flint relevant, trying to keep people talking about it. I’m utilizing all of it to see if there is someone out there who can bring in additional funding or programs.
One area that we’ve not been successful in, which is frustrating, is getting health care set up for the adults. There are plenty of adults suffering in city of Flint. We call them “the forgotten.” I know of six people who’ve had eye strokes because of lead poisoning. That’s why we’ve been to D.C., talking to multiple sides. We were on the state’s butt for months. But we’ve just had doors slammed in our faces. It’s not fair, because we didn’t do this for ourselves. People should not have to fight for something that was done to them.
Have there been any successes?
I think so. The congressional hearings found that this resulted from a failure of government at all levels. That feels like a victory. The $170 million we’re getting is fantastic, but it’s not enough. And the fact that it’s taken almost a year… I’m hoping that as it goes forward, the state and city will use it to maximize everything we can get done, as opposed to squandering it with nothing to show for it. We’ve had no transparency, no accountability for money that’s already come in. We have a right to know how this money is being spent.
You’ve been a fairly heroic model of local activism. What do you tell others about the value of this kind of work?
Well, I’ve learned that not all forms of government are worthless. As a local activist and everyday person, you can make a difference. If you know something is wrong, do your research. It’s not what we should have to do, but in the culture we’re living in now, where we don’t have the checks and balances that we need, that’s what needs to happen.
I do believe that my activism is helping, because people see the resilience of Flint. The community is still rallying together to get stuff done.
And yet, it sounds as if this has all had consequences for your husband.
Yes, we just filed charges against the military. Because of my work, they have been retaliating against him. We exhausted every effort to handle it privately ... but things just kept getting worse.
That must feel so insulting, after all that your family has been through.
Unbelievably insulting. To be told that my job is to be a good Navy wife, and not to be a crusader. I never thought for a million years we’d be fighting for our livelihoods after fighting for our lives in Flint.
Reforming the lead and copper rule has been a major focal point of your advocacy. Are you seeing any progress there?
People are understanding that how [Flint’s crisis] happened is an anomaly, but the why it happened is not, because the lead and copper rule is so damaged. I’ve been up to D.C. multiple times over the past year to meet with the EPA about this. When I go on speaking panels I talk about this, and [with Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech civil engineer and national lead-in-water expert] we are looking into other examples of how the lead and copper rule is severely broken. For instance, the EPA has been letting Philadelphia basically break this law. Some cities are coming forward on their own accord to fix this, but it is affecting the whole U.S. Atlanta’s children have high blood-lead levels. And east Chicago, with their kids, is another serious problem. It’s all over the country.
Right now we are investigating one idea pertaining to the rule—I can’t get too much into it right now. It has to do with how it intertwines with other federal rules. But, all of this is sort of on hold with the new president coming in. We are trying to figure out what his steps will be.
President-elect Trump has made statements supporting dismantling the EPA and many of its existing regulations. Is that something you’d like to see happen, given your experiences with the EPA?
I don’t think the EPA needs to be dismantled. I actually sometimes feel sorry for EPA, because they’ve taken a lot of funding cuts. If you want them to be able to do their job, they need the money.
I do think that the culture of protecting big business needs to change. That’s one of the major issues within EPA. We need more accountability as far as how money is spent, is it being wasted. We need more checks and balances. If Flint has proven anything, that’s one thing.
EPA has made lots of mistakes. Some own up to them, some don’t. But then there are people like Miguel [Del Toral, who blew the whistle inside the EPA after Walters contacted him] who take their jobs so seriously and want to help people and make changes so that the [agency’s] climate changes. And you know, talking about how my life has changed—my oldest daughter is in college, and since she was eight has wanted to be a pharmacist. But because of all of this now she’s thinking she wants to be a civil engineer and work for EPA so she can be one of the good guys. Miguel has been there 28 years—how much longer are we going to have those good guys in there?
Are you any more or less hopeful about what the new federal administration could offer Flint?
Realistically, until we start seeing some actions and how they’re going to proceed, that’s an up-in-the-air question. Trump said that he’d fix Flint, so the million dollar question is how. What do you plan to do? I’m open to sitting down and having talks. I’ve never had a problem speaking honestly before. I certainly wouldn’t have a problem now.