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FBI Investigating Flint's Poisoned Water Crisis

The bureau is part of a multiagency federal probe into whether any laws were broken.
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The FBI has joined the investigation into whether any laws were broken in the Flint water crisis.

The emergency spawned by the disastrous cost-cutting move to a new water source for the impoverished Michigan city had already prompted probes by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Attorney General's office.

The Detroit U.S. Attorney's office confirmed Tuesday that the FBI is part of a multiagency team probing the contamination. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division are also involved.

The crisis dates back to April 2014, when Flint stopped buying water from Detroit and began using water from the Flint River, which corroded underground pipes, leaching lead into the system and poisoning children.

Residents of Flint were also exposed to chemical byproducts, bacteria and Legionnaires' disease — but were repeatedly told the water was safe until this fall.

Two employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have been suspended, and an administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency resigned because of the debacle, which has left the city of 99,000 reliant on bottled water.

Asked whether any laws had been broken, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday, "I can't answer that question" and noted the FBI was investigating.

"I need to let it take its course."

David Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes section, said it's not likely investigators will find criminal violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the applicable regulatory vehicle in the Flint case.

That's because the criminal provisions of the law require that investigators show violations were intentional.

"As terrible as their conduct was, the idea that city officials were intentionally polluting the drinking water in Flint is far-fetched," he said.

Instead, he said, investigators may need to look to a section of federal law that governs criminal conspiracy, false statements and fraud.

"What this large collection of federal law enforcement is focusing on is whether there were lies told or material information concealed from federal or state regulators," he said.

And, he said, it's possible that investigators could bring charges against anyone they question who lies to them about their actions.

"The cover-up can be worse than the crime, though in this case there may be no underlying crime," said Uhlmann, who was born in Flint.