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Flint family that helped uncover water crisis wants whistleblower protection

Lee Anne Walters with her son Garrett outside of her home in Flint.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

One of the women who helped uncover the Flint water crisis says members of the U.S. Navy are retaliating against her husband. You can catch up on her family's back story here.

Lee Anne Walters says her husband, Dennis, filed documents asking to be assigned to another base after facing “a pattern of harassment.” Lee Anne says the Navy created a hostile work environment for him, in part because she’s continued her advocacy work.

“Basically he was told he had to stop to 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,” she said.

She says he has abided by the Navy’s instructions to stay out of the media. But Dennis has been part of a team of people from Flint who’ve helped Virginia Tech conduct testing on at least two occasions.

He also went with Lee Anne to Congressional hearings on the water crisis in Washington D.C. and similar hearings state lawmakers held in Lansing.

Lee Anne Walters has documents that showher husband’s superiors at the naval base where he works in Virginia worried the couple’s advocacy work last spring might be used to undermine the EPA. But the EPA helped fund the testing last March, and Lee Anne says they tried to explain that.

“We weren’t doing this to be harmful to people. We were doing this to help people. To be told that my job as a military wife is not to be a crusader, who decides that?”

She says the situation got worse after tests at their home on the Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia showed high lead levels. Tests show levels at 16 parts per billion; nowhere near the hazardous levels once recorded at her home in Flint, but still above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 ppb.

"To have to go through this after what we've already been through; this is completely unacceptable. We did the right thing in Flint and we're doing the right thing now," she said.

She says she shared the information with military housing officials, but that only seemed to make the workplace worse for Dennis. She says they “essentially demoted him” after the June test came in from Virginia Tech.

Walters’ attorney sent a whistleblower complaint to Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell this month, seeking immediate reassignment.

The letter says the retaliation included a much heavier workload; Walters worked 640 hours in ten weeks, rarely getting a day off. “The reprisal continued in the form of public and private humiliation that included numerous derogatory comments about his wife,” the letter continues. Eventually, the letter says, Dennis was threatened with “involuntary commitment for a psychiatric evaluation” – 8 days in an institution.

“I understand, it’s the Navy, they work long hours. I get it. But when you’re the only one working long hours, to go almost 6 weeks without a day off when everyone else is getting days off and not pulling those kinds of hours, being told to sleep in your office and suck it up; that is unacceptable, unless everyone else is doing it," Walters said.

The U.S. Navy and Rigell's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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