PEN America to Honor Flint Mother and Local Doctor for Speaking Out to Expose Poisoned Water Supply
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
LeeAnne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha to Receive 2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award
NEW YORK—PEN America announced today it will present the 2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to LeeAnne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint, Michigan, at the annual PEN Literary Gala on May 16 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Walters and Dr. Hanna-Attisha were two essential voices in exposing the lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply, calling out the grave damage to public health in a majority black community where about 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
A mother of four, Walters demanded that the city test her water and was devastated to learn that its lead level was far beyond the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible limit. Her four-year-old son Gavin was diagnosed with potentially irreversible lead poisoning. Despite the test results and Walter’s public protests to the Flint City Council, the city denied that it faced a serious water crisis. Walters then put in hours of research—uncovering glaring gaps in the city’s testing and corrosion control protocols—to take directly to the regional EPA, which then engaged experts from Virginia Tech to lead a study that uncovered lead throughout Flint’s water supply at levels up to twice what the EPA considers toxic waste.
“Courageousness in expression comes in many forms. Walters’ gutsy perseverance in the face of official dismissiveness, political inertia, and willful ignorance is a powerful illustration of the centrality of citizens’ expression to a thriving democracy,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “The willingness of individuals to stand up, speak out, and refuse to be denied is an essential catalyst for the vindication of rights and the realization of reform.”
The Virginia Tech water study tipped off local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Michigan State University and clinician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, who surveyed the hospital’s records of blood lead level testing in the city’s children. Her results revealed a doubling in the number of cases of lead poisoning since the city’s April 2014 move to a new water system. Dr. Hanna-Attisha took considerable professional risk in circumventing standard journal publication of her findings to instead announce them publicly in a press conference on September 24, 2015, at a time when the city and state continued to insist that Flint’s water was safe. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality disputed the results, calling her research “unfortunate” in a time of “near-hysteria.” Just over a week later, the state confirmed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings, eliciting assistance from the Red Cross and National Guard, and a January 2016 declaration by President Obama of a State of Emergency in Flint.
“Dr. Hanna-Attisha spoke out for one of the country’s most vulnerable populations,” said Andrew Solomon, President of PEN America. “She bypassed standard channels to take on a malevolent state bureaucracy, undermining its assertion of official inviolability. Her success in drawing public attention to Flint’s unfolding health crisis reflects the power of free expression to force unsavory facts out into the open. In speaking truth to power, she has saved innumerable lives.”
The PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Award was established in 2014 to honor exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression. In 2015, the award was presented to the surviving staff of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, sparking a global public debate on the limits of satire and free expression.
PEN America’s May 16 Literary Gala will also salute Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling with the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for engendering a love of literature among children worldwide. Additionally, the gala will applaud its Publisher Honoree, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch, for his leadership in the fight against censorship.
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Founded in 1922, PEN America is a community of 4,400 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag. To learn more, visit www.pen.org