In the Field: Meeting Citizen Scientist LeeAnne Walters

December 11, 2018

Program Officer Ryan Mack looks back on his first time meeting 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner LeeAnne Walters. LeeAnne Walters led a citizens’ movement that tested the tap water in Flint, Michigan, and exposed the Flint water crisis.

In late February 2018, I flew out to Norfolk, Virginia, to meet with LeeAnne Walters, our 2018 Prize winner for North America. LeeAnne’s hectic travel schedule keeps her on the move; she typically spends two weeks at a time in Flint—where she continues her on-the-ground advocacy work for the community—and two weeks back with her husband in Norfolk. Twice a month, she and her twin boys load up the family van and make the grueling 12-hour road trip.

LeeAnne with family members from Flint Michigan

LeeAnne with her family in Norfolk, Virginia

Born in New Jersey, LeeAnne grew up in Flint and still calls it home. However, a few years back, her husband went back on active duty in the Navy and was stationed in Norfolk. It’s one heck of a commute, but LeeAnne remains upbeat—even after several years. She described how the wear-and-tear on their car was one of the major downsides. I worried more about the wear-and-tear on her.

During my visit, LeeAnne welcomed me into her home. While sipping glasses of Boost! (an old-school soda only available in southern New Jersey), LeeAnne shared more of her formidable story.

The part of LeeAnne’s story that fascinates me the most is her evolution as a citizen scientist. While sitting in her kitchen in Norfolk, LeeAnne pulled out the simple bottles that she and other Flint residents used to collect water samples. In my research leading up to the 2018 Prize, I learned from experts that residents would be lucky to get a 40% response rate for these types of in-home tests. LeeAnne somehow got a 90% response rate.

As we spoke about this at her kitchen table, I also learned that her husband, Dennis, had been instrumental in helping to collect samples. Every zip code in Flint got an equal distribution of bottles, and LeeAnne and Dennis worked with residents on how to correctly take the samples.

Community standing and looking up at camera in Flint Michigan

LeeAnne with community members in Flint, Michigan

I think that one of the most underrepresented aspects of LeeAnne’s story is how lead water testing in cities around the US has been completely muddled. Government officials at various levels frequently use sampling techniques that make lead levels appear lower than they actually are. Residents are often encouraged to “pre-flush” their water from their pipes ahead of time, which doesn’t reflect how people use their water. This practice virtually eliminates the likelihood of detecting lead in drinking water, especially if it’s leaching from the pipes. Furthermore, many government agencies use bottles with narrow openings that spill out as much water as they catch, forcing testers to collect water at a very low flow rate. This tends to reduce the amount of lead in water compared to normal use.

LeeAnne has been championing these changes in testing by asking the US Environmental Protection Agency  to update and enforce its Lead and Copper Rule to ensure accurate testing of lead in drinking water. She even testified on the Lead and Copper Rule in front of Congress. These solutions are neither complicated nor expensive: It could simply mean the difference between a narrow-mouthed water bottle and a wide-mouthed one.

In the meantime, citizen scientists (like LeeAnne) will need to do proper testing and serve as watchdogs. And more testing is needed—across the country. In November 2017, a Reuters investigative team found more than 3,000 areas in the US with lead poisoning double that of Flint’s.

To support LeeAnne’s ongoing work to protect water quality, please visit US Water Study.

Ryan is a passionate advocate for the environment and human rights. With over 15 years of experience, he has worked with grassroots organizers, local nonprofits, international NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector. Ryan has managed projects in the US and Latin America related to climate change, energy efficiency, zero waste and organic agriculture. He holds a MS in Environmental Management with a focus on energy and water resources. Ryan joined the Prize in 2013.