Flint whistle-blower mom testifies in DEQ staffer case
Flint — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality never called with concerns that harmful lead and toxins kept increasing in the drinking water even after Flint officials expressed alarm at the numbers, a Flint mother testified Wednesday.
Lee-Anne Walters, 39, told 67th District Judge Jennifer Manley how she and her four children suffered from rashes, bumps and other ailments due to lead in her drinking water. Flint switched from the Detroit-area water system to the Flint River in April 2014, which prompted concerns about the quality and smell of the water from residents.
Her daughter’s hair was falling out in clumps, Walter said.
Walters said lead and other contaminants spiked from 104 parts per billion to 397 from February 2015 to March 2015 in her home. It kept climbing in August to 717 parts per billion, she said. The federal threshold for remediation is 15 parts per billion.
Flint officials promised they would replace the water service line to her home, but she resorted to hooking up to a neighbor’s garden hose for five weeks, she said.
When confronting MDEQ officials, Walter said she felt rebuffed and not taken seriously. At a Lansing meeting in August with DEQ regulators including Stephen Busch, she described him as “demeaning and pompous.”
This was the second day of testimony in the criminal preliminary hearing for suspended Michigan Department of Environmental Quality water regulators Stephen Busch, Michael Prysby and Patrick Cook as well as Liane Shekter Smith, the fired former head of the DEQ division responsible for overseeing Flint’s water source switch.
The charges include involuntary manslaughter for Shekter Smith and Busch. Other charges among the four include misconduct in office. Manley will decide if the four go to trial.
Walters made news in 2015 for helping bring the lead contamination issue to light by complaining about her children getting sick and getting her water tested.
In April 2015, a lead technical expert from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional office came to check for lead and go over her test results. The official, Miguel Del Toral, had given her an interim report in June 2015 that she gave to a journalist from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
She then described a Aug. 4, 2015 meeting in Lansing about Flint’s water quality arranged by a concerned Flint pastors’ group. It was there that she met Busch, Prysby and Shekter Smith, to whom she tried to hand the EPA report.
When Special Prosecutor Todd Flood asked what was said, Walters responded, “she refuses to take it.”
“Did she tell you why?” Flood asked.
“She had already seen it. She told me that the report was flawed,” Walters said. “And that Miguel had been handled, and that there would not be a final report.” Her impression was that he had been “taken out of the game,” gotten into trouble for giving her the report, she told the judge.
“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” the EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman wrote in the July 1, 2015, email to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and DEQ will be responsible for following up with the city.”
The revised and vetted memo was released four months later — in November 2015 after the lead issues were publicized statewide in late September. Hedman resigned in February 2016 following a Detroit News interview in which she defended her actions.
Walters said she never once heard from the defendants in the case or other DEQ officials about the elevated levels of lead in her drinking water.
Her youngest son, a twin who was 3, suffered weight loss and was put on iron supplements to help with anemia, she said.
Her water was never contaminated, she testified, prior to 2014.
On cross examination by three defense attorneys, Walters said that once her service lines were replaced the lead levels went down in her home. When her children stopped drinking water from the tap, their levels declined as well, she said.
Under questioning by Busch attorney Mark Kriger, Walters confirmed that other homes on her block did not test for high levels of lead in the drinking water.
Cook attorney John Smietanka asked Walters if she had sued anyone, including any of the DEQ defendants, the city of Flint or state agencies.
At first, she said she couldn’t answer. After more pressing from Smietanka, Walters said, “Honestly, I do not know. You’d have to talk to my attorney.”
Walters said in April 2016 the criminal charges are “a step in the right direction in getting justice.”
On Thursday, Warren Green, a consultant for Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam who helped with the preparation of the Flint Water Plant, is expected to testify how the facility wasn’t ready when the water switch happened in April 2014.