Ongoing lawsuits, official investigations, and recent criminal charges against state and city officials have disturbed even further the Flint water crisis. News came this week that raise new questions, even as they saddened residents and activists in the stricken city in Michigan.
News came on April 16 that Flint’s Water Treatment Plant Foreman Matthew McFarland (43) died suddenly at his home in Otter Lake, Lapeer County. The body of the 43-year-old man was found by a friend, according to the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Department. According to media reports, there were no signs of foul play. However, the results of an autopsy and toxicology report have yet to be released. Lapeer County is adjacent to Genesee County, wherein Flint is located.
McFarland was previously interviewed by the office of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette as part of an investigation into the water crisis, in which Flint’s drinking water was contaminated by toxic levels of lead through government mismanagement after the city switched from water supplied from Lake Huron to a source in the Flint River.
A former city water treatment official, Michael Glasgow, is facing criminal charges for his alleged role in the crisis. Glasgow is accused of tampering with evidence when he allegedly changed testing results so as to indicate lower levels of lead than were actually there. Also, he was charged with willful neglect of office.
Officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby, are charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence and violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. In a statement following the announcement of McFarland’s death, Schuette said “The negative impact of the Flint water crisis continues to unfold, creating one of the most tragic situations in Michigan history. My duty is to find the truth for all victims and our investigation will carry forward until that job is complete." Schuette has promised to follow the investigation to whomever may be involved, regardless of position.
Another death has also shaken Flint, which is accustomed to violent crime. Sasha Avonna Bell, who was at the center of a water crisis lawsuit, was found shot to death at a townhouse this week. She was one of the growing numbers of people who have filed for compensation. She alleged that her child had been poisoned with led. Besides Bell, another woman was found dead in the home. Also, a 1-year-old child was also found unharmed inside of the Flint home where Bell's body was discovered. Neighbors said that they heard no gunshots or other noises that would have led them to believe that any violence had taken place on the residential street.
Police have no suspects at this time and are asking the community for tips.
Bell’s attorney, Corey M. Stern said that hers was a “tragic and senseless death.” Hers was one of 64 lawsuits filed on behalf of 144 children by Stern's firm, New York-based Levy Konigsberg, and the Flint-based Robinson Carter & Crawford.
Professor Marc Edwards, an expert on water from Virginia Tech who is of counsel to the city, said this week that he is glad that criminal charges have been filed in the case. However, he also said that former water plant manager Glasgow is “not in the same league” as defendants Busch and Prysby. Glasgow himself has said that “higher-ups” were behind the decision in which essential anti-corrosion material was not added to the drinking water, thus leaching into Flint’s drinking water.
Various investigations are now underway at the state and federal level into the decision-making that led to one of the worst public health disasters in recent history. In March, Flint Water Advisory Task Force – on which Prof. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and other experts sit – called for an investigation into the Karegnondi Water Authority and the commitments to purchasing water to which the city of Flint is committed. The Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) will operate a an 80-mile-long $285 million pipeline project to bring water directly from Lake Huron to provide water to Flint and most of the communities in Genesee County. It is still under construction and is employing more than 1,300 workers. Less than 10 miles of the pipeline remain to be built.
The Taskforce concluded that "an entity with proper tools and resources" such as Michigan Attorney General Schuette or the U.S. Attorney should conduct an investigation of the project financing, contracting, development and approval of the KWA. Observers in Michigan are asking whether such a project is not redundant, given that Flint has now returned to water being supplied from Lake Huron through the city of Detroit’s water system at no further cost to tax payers.