A stay-at-home mother of four and trained medical assistant who led the effort to expose the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has recieved a prestigious award that honors grassroots environmental activists from across the globe.
LeeAnne Walters is the North American recipient of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize, which is awarded to one activist from each of the world's six inhabited continents.
After Walters's eyelashes started falling out, her twin toddlers broke out in a rash, and her teenage son started experiencing vision and kidney problems in 2014, she filed a formal complaint. Months later, in February 2015, local officials tested lead levels in her water—which, they determined, were dangerously high.
While officials initially insisted Walters's case was an anomoly—and thus did not indicate a broader threat to the public—she recruited EPA regional manager Miguel del Toral and Marc Edwards, a professor and environmental engineer at Virginia Tech to help her conduct city-wide testing.
"Walters methodically sampled each zip code in Flint and set up a system to ensure the integrity of the tests. She 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," according to a statement by the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
In 2011, the state had taken over Flint's finances amid a budget crisis. In hopes of cutting down on the city's water costs, officials made plans to build a pipeline from Lake Huron so it would no longer have to pay Detroit for access. However, they needed a temporary fix during the construction phase.
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In April 2014, the city started drawing water from the Flint River—a long-time dumping ground for lumber and paper mills, chemical processing plants, and automobile makers—without installing corrosion controls. That decision exposed tens of thousands of residents to unsafe levels of lead.
The lead poisoning crisis that swept Flint was, for a time, expected to fell Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan. But the start of criminal trials of those deemed responsible for the disaster has stirred outrage in Flint at the prospect that the governor will pay no price for what happened on his watch.
Neither Snyder, nor any of his closest aides, are among the 15 people identified by Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette as being criminally responsible for allowing lead to leech into Flint's drinking water in April 2014 and failing to deal with its deadly consequences.
The other recipients of the Goldman Environmental Foundation's 2018 award are:
- Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, who built a coalition of opponents to a nuclear power project in South Africa, which would have been developed by Russia according to a $76 billion deal between the governments;
- Francia Márquez, who organized the women of La Toma to stop illegal gold mining on their ancestral land in southwest Colombia;
- Khanh Nguy Thi, who founded the Green Innovation and Development Centre and worked with Vietnam's government to develop a national sustainable energy development plan;
- Manny Calonzo, who successfully led a campaign to pressure the Philippine government to ban lead paint, and helped develop a certification program for paint safety; and
- Claire Nouvian, who led an effort to convince a major French supermarket and fleet owner to support a ban on the fishing practice of deep-sea bottom trawling, which ultimately led to outlawing the method across the entire European Union.