A Federal Criminal Investigation in Flint

The FBI and other U.S. government organizations are looking into lead poisoning in the Michigan city.

Carlos Osorio / AP

The poisoning of Flint’s population with lead is a human tragedy, and a story about the failure of government to protect its citizens. But is it a crime, too?

The FBI might be looking into that question, the Detroit Free Press reports Tuesday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit said almost a month ago it was working on an investigation of the man-made disaster, but it wouldn’t say whether that inquiry was criminal or civil. It now appears the answer is criminal, as officials told the Freep the team includes the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the EPA’s Office of Inspector General Criminal Investigation Division.

The obvious, and unanswered, question now is who might be prosecuted and for what crimes. There’s plenty of blame to go around: City and state officials knew about problems with the water for months before taking action, downplaying the risks or simply saying they were someone else’s problem. The director of the state Department of Environmental Quality has been fired. EPA also failed to stop the disaster, saying it was the state’s responsibility; the regional director for the agency has resigned in the wake of that revelation.

The federal task force isn’t the only group investigating Flint. Governor Rick Snyder has appointed a task force, and state Attorney General Bill Schuette has also launched an investigation. The U.S. House Oversight Committee is holding hearings as well.

Much of the scrutiny, and fury, centers on the role of Darnell Earley, who was Flint’s emergency manager when it began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River. The city had elected to stop using Detroit’s water system, but Detroit terminated Flint’s contract before a replacement pipeline was built, leading Flint to use the river. But the Flint River’s water, which has a higher chloride content than the water from Lake Huron that Detroit uses, corroded Flint’s aging lead pipes, bringing the metal into the water supply—a problem that continues even after Flint went back to the Detroit system.

Earley was appointed by Snyder under Michigan’s much-maligned emergency-manager law, which grants the state the ability to bring in administrators to run troubled cities. Earley was called by the House Oversight Committee, but has apparently declined to testify. After leaving Flint, he became emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools, and controversy has dogged him in that job, too—and he will step down from the job February 29. As the Freep reports, the Flint disaster is just one factor:

Earley has faced growing criticism in recent months both for what happened Flint and the problems within DPS such as crowded classrooms, dilapidated schools and a growing debt. Teachers have staged several sick-outs in recent weeks to protest the mold, water damage and rodent problems in some of the city's older schools, saying Earley had ignored their complaints.