Who is LeeAnne Walters? Activist Who Helped Expose Flint Water Crisis Wins Top Prize

A top environmental award recognized the efforts of LeeAnne Walters, a Flint, Michigan, resident who worked tirelessly to expose the lead contamination of the Michigan city's water supply. The award comes nearly four years after the crisis began—and is yet to fully be resolved.

Since its founding, in 1989, the yearly, San Francisco–based Goldman Environmental Prize has honored grassroots activists for their work protecting the planet, picking one winner per area of the world. Walters was announced as the winner for the North American region on Monday, with the award noting how her "persistence" forced local, state and federal authorities to take action.

Walters, who trained as a medical assistant, began investigating lead exposure after the city finally tested the water supply at the Flint residents' insistence in February 2015. She found that lead levels in the water were at 104 parts per billion (ppb), an unprecedentedly high rate.

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LeeAnne Walters (right), a mother of four who helped expose Flint, Michigan's toxic water crisis, reads a statement on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2016. Walters was awarded the Goldman Prize on April 22, 2018. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Walters learned that the city did not apply the necessary corrosion controls to prevent the leaching of lead from pipes into the water supply. She finally knew why her eyelashes at one point fell out and her four children all exhibited symptoms of lead contamination; one of her twins was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

While state authorities insisted the water was safe, Walters enlisted the help of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "rogue" regional manager Miguel Del Toral and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards to make her case while gathering evidence.

"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," the prize noted in Walters's biography.

LeeAnne Walters. The Goldman Environmental Prize

Her research found that lead contamination levels in some areas were twice as high as what the EPA considered hazardous waste.

"Without [Walters] we would be nowhere," Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of pediatrics at Flint's Hurley Medical Center who tested lead levels in Flint children's blood, supplying further evidence for the water contamination, told Mother Jones in 2016. "She's the crux of all of this."

Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder halted the water supply from Flint River in October 2015 and apologized for failing Flint residents in January 2016. The city has yet to fully recover access to potable water, and 12 people have died as the result of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak connected to the contaminated water.

The state supplied free bottled water until earlier this month, when Snyder decided to end the program after water tests showed lead levels below the federal level for a majority of the area, as CNN reported. Some residents remain concerned about the quality of the water supply, for which they pay some of the country's highest bills.

Walters continues her grassroots activism. The advocacy group Water You Fighting For?, which she founded in 2015 along with fellow activist Melissa Mays, is one of the organizations calling for a rally in the state capital of Lansing on April 25.