A stay-at-home mother of four children just won an award often described as the Nobel Prize for the environment. LeeAnne Walters earned the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work spearheading a citizens’ movement to test Flint, Michigan tap water, helping expose the water crisis. Her work revealed water lead levels higher than the EPA‘s safety threshold in one in six homes.
The Goldman Environmental Foundation shared Walters’ story: in July 2014, she noticed a rash, later diagnosed as scabies, on her three-year-old twins. Local and state officials had started sourcing water from the Flint River for residents just a few months earlier in April. Walters and her daughter started losing clumps of hair, and her son got sick later that year. Walters told the city about the water issue in late 2014 and tests showed lead levels were at 104 parts per billion (ppb) in the family’s drinking water. All of her kids tested positive for lead exposure. One twin was diagnosed with lead poisoning.
But Flint said Walters’ case was an isolated one. So she started scrutinizing historical water quality data and uncovered that Flint River water was highly corrosive. With the city still inactive, Walters started a canvassing operation to let residents know about the risk. She enlisted an EPA regional manager (even while the agency refused to get involved officially) and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. She sampled all of Flint’s zip codes, with a system in place to ensure test integrity, and “worked over 100 hours per week for three straight weeks and collected over 800 water samples — garnering an astounding 90 percent response rate. She found lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb — more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste.”
Walters’ fight isn’t over. She’s partnered with Edwards on the water safety and infrastructure inequality project US Water Study Research; you can donate to their work on Virginia Tech’s official crowdfunding platform. Walters and other Flint residents also launched a fundraising project on Chuffed after Michigan stopped providing bottled water earlier this month. The residents say water won’t be safe until repair work is finished — possibly around 2020. The Goldman Environmental Prize’s website also suggests writing to the EPA or your representative requesting they update the Lead and Copper Rule to remove loopholes for lead testing in water.
Other 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winners are working in Colombia, South Africa, France, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Foundation president Susie Gelman said in a statement, “Their efforts remind us that just one person can inspire countless others to act on behalf of our environment.”
Images courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation