Flint, Michigan resident LeeAnne Walters has come up against yet another adversary in her fight for clean water—the U.S. Navy. Walters, who has been a leading activist in the ongoing Flint water scandal, battling intransigent city and state officials, revealed last week that her husband Dennis has for months been the victim of punishment and harassment by his employer, the Navy, because of the couple’s involvement in the issue.
“It has been heart wrenching watching them try to destroy my husband on a daily basis,” Walters told the World Socialist Web Site. “Never in a million years did I think we’d be fighting the U.S. Navy for our livelihoods after fighting for our lives in Flint.”
Flint came into the spotlight this past year for the high levels of lead and other contaminants in its water as a result of switching its water source in 2014 from water treated in Detroit to water from the badly polluted Flint River. Walters was one of the first citizens to bring attention to the issue when she noticed her four children losing their hair after their tap water had begun to appear brown. As a result of the public outcry over the lead contamination, the city switched back to the Detroit-treated late in 2015, but Flint’s water remains unsafe to drink.
LeeAnne and Dennis Walters testified before Michigan state legislators in March of 2016, presenting a detailed time line of the events that led to the exposure of the water crisis. According to LeeAnne, “That’s when things took a turn for the worse” for Dennis, a 17-year Navy veteran. “Basically he was told he had to stop doing what he’s doing and to cower down and get me to quit working on Flint and to get me under control or he better get used to his life being the way it’s been.”
LeeAnne told Michigan Public Radio that she has documents showing that Dennis’s superiors at his naval base in Virginia felt the couple’s activism might undermine the EPA. The Navy made this claim despite the fact, as LeeAnne points out, that the EPA was involved in the testing of Flint’s water.
The situation got worse for the couple after they had the water tested in their Virginia home, where they moved in late 2015. The tests revealed high levels of lead—16 parts per billion, above the EPA’s “actionable” level of 15 ppb. After LeeAnne shared this information with naval housing officials, she says, Dennis was “essentially demoted.”
A letter from the Walters’s attorney to Virginia Congressman seeking whistleblower protection for Dennis requested that he be immediately reassigned to another base. The letter cites retaliation by the Navy against Walters that included a heavily increased workload, numerous derogatory comments about his wife, and even a threat to be subjected to an involuntary psychiatric evaluation requiring an 8-day stay in an institution.
The abuse and intimidation have taken their toll on the couple, but LeeAnne vows to fight on. “I want to help people in Flint,” she says. “That’s my passion. It’s my community. But there’s only so much of me, and in a way[the Navy] has diverted some of my attention from what I’m trying to accomplish in Flint. But as far as getting me to stop, I’m not going to bow down to bullies.”
Although the United States has whistleblower protection laws, whistleblowers are rarely protected, especially when they have blown the whistle on government agencies. What the case of LeeAnne and Dennis Walters reveals is just how integrated is the ruling class assault on working families. The corruption at the heart of the Flint water scandal and its coverup involves Flint, Detroit and Michigan state officials. But no meaningful federal assistance to the people of Flint has been forthcoming, with President Barack Obama visiting the city earlier this year, drinking a glass of Flint water for the cameras and essentially telling the people of the city they are on their own. That the Navy should inflict punishment on the Walters family is an indication of what we are all up against if we try to assert our rights to something as simple as drinkable water. It is an ominous sign of things to come.