Lee Anne Walters and her family were the first in Flint, Michigan, to discover that there were astronomically high levels of lead in the water and alert the Environmental Protection Agency. But the family now says her criticism and advocacy during the water crisis has been met with workplace retaliation and harassment against her husband, a sailor with the US Navy.
“We’re still recovering from Flint. We never thought we’d be in this position again,” Walters said, explaining that she is afraid her husband is in danger of losing his job. “We are afraid now for our livelihoods.”
Dennis Walters, a 17-year Navy veteran, has filed a complaint claiming mistreatment at work due to his wife’s role in the Flint water crisis.
In a complaint filed last week, Dennis Walters claims that he has been repeatedly mistreated at the Sewells Point Police Precinct, which is part of Naval Station Norfolk, because his wife has been so outspoken. He claims that the pattern of harassment began in March after she testified in Congress.
“Since I testified at the state Senate hearing, things got progressively worse,” Lee Anne Walters said. “They threatened to force him into a hardship discharge if he didn’t get me under control.”
A “hostile work environment”
In his suit, Dennis Walters claims that he has been “subjected to a systematically hostile work environment” in which he was made to work unreasonably long hours without breaks and was denied training opportunities, according to court documents. He claims the stressful work environment has resulted in physical symptoms including vomiting and nausea while on duty. Two senior officers, Chief Petty Officer Wood and Senior Chief Kubaki, made Walters attend an unspecified type of counseling after he complained of these symptoms, the court documents state. His command also threatened to subject him to a “period of involuntary commitment for a psychiatric evaluation.”
Lee Anne Walters says the family has been careful to respect protocol and keep her husband out of the advocacy efforts, but it has not made a difference. She says her criticism of the EPA and the slow response to the water crisis in Flint has caused her husband problems at work.
“When we started this, my husband was given very clear-cut guidelines on how he could participate,” she said. “We were told his name couldn’t be used, he couldn’t do interviews, and we have followed the rules. So to turn around and be let down once again by the government, it’s not OK.” She did not say who gave them these guidelines.
First to notice a problem
More than a year and a half ago Lee Anne Walters first noticed water with an orange tint coming out of the tap in her Flint, Michigan, home and rashes on her twin boys. Doctors confirmed one of the boys was showing signs of stunted growth. They were living in Flint at the time because Dennis was stationed there.
Walters sent a sample of her water to the EPA, the federal agency that regulates drinking water, expecting it to take care of the problem.
It took 11 months from when an EPA official first expressed concern over high lead levels in Walters’ home before the EPA issued an emergency order in Flint. The lead levels in Walters’ home were twice the level considered to be toxic waste. Both of her sons were diagnosed with lead poisoning, according to court documents.
Two years later, now living in Virginia where Dennis is stationed, the Walters family is still dealing with the effects of the crisis. Both boys, now 5, suffer from health issues, and Lee Anne Walters has continued bringing attention to the issue, driving back to Michigan every two weeks.
She testified in Congress about their experiences in Flint and made a presentation at a House Oversight Committee hearing in early 2016.
When Dennis Walters asked for time off to attend the public hearing in March, he was told that he would need to take personal leave to attend and that his appearance at the hearing “could be demeaning to the EPA,” according to court documents.
He also claims that he’s been subjected to public and private humiliation at work, including many “derogatory comments” about his wife and her involvement in the crisis, according to court documents.
“They were demeaning me on a daily basis to my husband, that my job as a military wife is not to be a crusader,” Lee Anne Walters said. According to court documents, he was “effectively demoted, and reduced to administrative details that had the effect of completely removing him from any leadership role within the command.”
Dennis Walters is requesting a transfer to another unit within the Navy.