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Flint Activist On Water Crisis


Four years ago this week, Flint, Mich.'s water source was switched from the Detroit River over to the Flint River. Brown, smelly water started coming out of faucets in people's homes. LeeAnne Walters is the mother of four. And at the time, all of her kids got sick because of the water. She decided to do something about it. Walters teamed up with scientists, and they tested water samples, got data that would ultimately force officials to act. Four years on, she says things are not back to normal.

Are people drinking the tap water right now?

LEEANNE WALTERS: Absolutely not.

MARTIN: Huh. What does it look like?

WALTERS: Some people are complaining about cloudiness. We're not seeing the discoloration that we were seeing before. But the grave concern is the fact that they're having a hard time maintaining chlorine levels. You know, that puts us at risk for bacteria, especially with the warmer weather coming upon us.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about the research that you're doing right now?

WALTERS: Well, the research that we're doing right now is that we are trying to get policies changed. And coming this summer, we were given a grant - the U.S. water study grant. So we're going to start testing across the United States in communities that have reached out to us. So we're going to go in and try and teach them to do what we did in Flint. And then this way, we can see, is it - yes, it is their water. Or no, maybe it's something else in their environment.

MARTIN: So what are you teaching these other communities? You say the lessons learned in Flint can help other cities and municipalities figure out their own levels of water safety. What do you teach them?

WALTERS: You know, we're trying to inspire people to take some of the work on themselves to protect themselves and do citizen scientist work. We're also trying to, you know, help bridge that gap between academia and everyday residents because with everybody working together, we're going to get so much more accomplished.

MARTIN: I understand that you are talking now with national officials, including officials from the EPA, about changes you want to see made. Can you give us the specifics of what you're lobbying for?

WALTERS: What we have been lobbying for since everything that happened in Flint is to have the Lead and Copper Rule changed.

MARTIN: Explain what that is.

WALTERS: So the Lead and Copper Rule is a test that is done testing for lead in water. And instead of doing that, they're actually cheating and using loopholes to hide and minimize the lead. I want to change the rule so that the loopholes that are in the system that are not illegal are eliminated so that this way, we are testing in accordance to the way the law was written so that we don't have any more future Flints.

MARTIN: So you've been lobbying the EPA to make this change to get rid of these loopholes. What was their response?

WALTERS: Their initial response at the height of the Flint water crisis was that we would see changes in the Lead and Copper Rule as early as January, February 2018. That got shifted to where it's going to be some time in 2019. And then more recently, they now have no timeline for us.

MARTIN: So what kind of red flags does that raise for you?

WALTERS: Huge red flags. We don't want this to be a forgotten thing. We can't let this fall off the map after what's happened.

MARTIN: If you're talking to the national - at the national level, you're talking to the EPA. You're trying to motivate citizens to take more responsibility for testing their own water. What is the role of local government to make sure something like this doesn't happen again?

WALTERS: That's a very good question. They should be just as informed and concerned about how the water is being tested. They get told by their Department of Environmental Quality how to do the testing. But these people should know what the law is, what the rules are for this and be able to raise red flags.

MARTIN: LeeAnne Walters. She just won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to expose the toxic water crisis in Flint, Mich. Thank you so much for talking with us.

WALTERS: Well, thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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