POLITICS
01/05/2016 11:58 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2016

Justice Department Investigating Toxic Tap Water In Flint

High lead levels in Flint's water could have harmed thousands of city kids.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) faces ongoing fallout after thousands of local children in Flint were exposed to dangerous leve
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) faces ongoing fallout after thousands of local children in Flint were exposed to dangerous levels of lead. 

Days after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) apologized for toxic tap water in the city of Flint and accepted the resignations of multiple state officials, the U.S. Justice Department said it has opened an investigation into what went wrong. 

"In an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District is working closely with the EPA on the investigation into the contamination of the city of Flint's water supply," Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, told HuffPost on Tuesday. 

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped expose the poisoning of Flint's water, was the first to report the Justice Department investigation, highlighting it as an "unusual step."

Last week, a task force appointed by Snyder squarely blamed the high lead levels in Flint's water on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The agency failed to address the water's corrosiveness after switching the city's water source to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure in 2014. At the time, Flint was under the authority of an emergency manager appointed by the state of Michigan.

The new water absorbed lead from Flint's aging pipes, and researchers discovered a corresponding increase of lead levels in the bloodstreams of local children. The MDEQ continued to deny a lead poisoning problem even as evidence mounted last year. 

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened," Snyder said in a statement last week. In that statement, the governor also announced the resignation of MDEQ director Dan Wyant. Flint switched back to Detroit's water supply in October after high blood lead levels came to light.

Snyder spokeswoman Laura Biehl said Tuesday that the governor's office would cooperate with the Justice Department. 

“We will cooperate fully with any requests from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as it looks into Flint’s water challenges," Biehl said, noting that the Snyder-appointed task force is still reviewing the water crisis. 

Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the Michigan ACLU, welcomed the news of the DOJ's investigation, saying "it means that we're not gonna have to only rely on a panel appointed by Gov. Snyder to find out what really happened and if laws were violated."

The Environmental Protection Agency opened an investigation into Flint's water situation in November.

Lead is a deadly neurotoxin, and exposure is especially dangerous for children, who may experience stunted growth, behavioral problems and permanently decreased IQs.  

This story has been updated to include additional details about the city's switch to the Flint River as its water source.

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