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Long-Ignored Hero of Flint Water Crisis: 'I'm Just a Mom'

Walters, right, raised alarm bells over tainted water in Flint, Mich., but no one listened.

For months, state and federal officials ignored LeeAnne Walters' complaints about the drinking water in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. They saw no reason to answer her, even though her son was so sick that doctors thought he had cancer and other family members, too, were losing hair and breaking out in rashes.  

They didn't respond even when Walters pointed to repeated tests by government agencies and independent scientists showing that hazardous levels of lead had leached into the water.  

In fact, it was not until she started sharing an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo, confirming the high lead levels, that officials started to pay attention.  

What You Missed: House Hearing on Flint Water Crisis

And on Wednesday, as House Republicans and Democrats argued about which of those officials is to blame for "poisoning" thousands of children, lawmakers did agree on one thing: That Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four with a lifelong fear of public speaking, was the hero of the crisis.  

"I want to say to this mother who is here, we have already called you a hero, which you would wish not to be because you have a child who is poisoned," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said at the morning hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  

Walters, 38, said she was only doing was was right for her family: "I'm not a hero; I'm just a mom."  

Her account, the only personal story of a resident whose family was poisoned by the city's contaminated drinking water offered during the three-hour hearing, carries the weight of thousands of families in Flint, where state and federal officials have now acknowledged they knew about the tainted water for months before warning the public.  

"My home used to be a place of comfort and safety for my family," Walters told the committee. "It used be what a home should be, a place of peace and protection from the outside world. That was taken from us, and not just from my family but from every home, and every citizen in Flint. Now my home is known as Ground Zero."

During Wednesday's hearing, many of the seats were filled by Flint residents who traveled to the Capitol in a charter bus -- an overnight drive that took 12 hours, one passenger said. A man held up a neon sign that read, "Bring Democracy Back to Michigan." The city is predominately low-income and African American.

At one point, Flint-born Sharon Moore, 51, left the hearing room in tears. She said she was wearing a wig because her hair is still falling out. "I came all the way here because I wanted to be a voice for those who don't have a voice," she said. "The people of Flint are scared. We don't know what's going to happen to us."  

Walters was the only resident to speak before the committee, though, and her story dovetailed with a timeline of key events during the 18 months the city distributed the contaminated water in the city. In 2014, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River instead of far cleaner Lake Huron in an effort to save money.  

Timeline: Six Major Events in the Flint Disaster But the state did not require anti-corrosion chemicals to be added to the new water supply, causing iron, rust and toxic levels of lead to leach into residents’ water from the aging pipes. Residents complained of rashes and strange odors for months, but officials insisted the water was safe until elevated levels of lead were found in city children’s blood last year.  

The Walters family renovated their home in June 2011, installing plastic pipes and an iron filtration system. But after the city switched its supply, the water started coming out of the faucets orange, Walters said.  

They stopped drinking it in late November or early December, yet continued to suffer from skin rashes from bathing, and tests showed steadily elevated lead levels in the blood of their twin boys. One of those boys, now 4, gained only three and a half pounds in the past year, Walters said.  

Pelosi Questions Using FEMA Money in Flint 

An EPA official tested the water in her home and submitted a memo about the elevated lead levels. Walters requested the memo and released it publicly. In response, EPA officials ordered the author of that report not to talk to the press or to other Flint residents.  

Walters then called Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech expert on water quality, who conducted 30 tests at her home, each one showing significantly higher levels of lead contamination than the EPA said it had found. State officials continued to maintain that the water was safe while the EPA, she said, "watched in silence."  

Walters said she had never before acted as a public advocate of anything. Her father was a tool and dye engineer who moved to Flint in 1993, and she met her husband in high school -- where she dodged every public speaking opportunity that came her way. She had her first child at 18, got a technical degree as a medical assistant, and opted to stay home with her children.  

Republicans on the committee in particular placed the brunt of the blame on the EPA, where some had concerns about possible lead contamination nearly a year ago. “It’s important for the EPA to tell people that their water is poisoning their kids,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, shouted into his microphone. “Why didn’t they do that? What good is the EPA if they can’t do that?"  

Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings was outraged, too, but stressed that state and local officials share the blame. “I want everyone who is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable!” the Maryland Democrat said.  

Members of the committee pledged to continue digging into the matter, including issuing a subpoena for the the EPA's former regional chief and siccing U.S. marshals on the former Flint administrator who dodged a subpoena for Wednesday's hearing.  

Leaders from the House Energy and Commerce Committee also sought additional answers Wednesday in letters sent to the  EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  

But senators, meanwhile,  failed to reach agreement  on an effort to secure $600 million in federal funding for Flint, a dispute that threatened to derail discussion of a bipartisan energy bill.  

And Walters said she's not quite ready to trust that even seemingly sympathetic members of Congress will take concrete action to address the problem.  

"I'm going to watch what this committee does," she said. "I don't put my faith in anyone anymore."  

Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and follow on Twitter at @stephanieakin

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