Michigan's attorney general named a special prosecutor Monday to probe the contaminated water crisis in the city of Flint, to determine whether laws were broken during a months-long period when officials failed to notify residents of dangerous lead content in the city's drinking water.
The appointment comes as Gov. Rick Snyder scrambles to address the crisis, which was triggered in 2014 when the cash-strapped Flint government sought to save money by drawing water from a local river rather than nearby Detroit's water system.
It was later found that engineers did not properly treat the corrosive Flint River water to prevent lead leaching from old pipes. It was also learned that Flint residents were not informed about their tainted drinking water supply for a year and a half.
Current estimates to replace the city's water pipes run as high as $1.5 billion.
Attorney General Bill Schuette tapped former Wayne County assistant prosecutor Todd Flood to lead the probe, to avoid any potential conflict of interest between the Flint investigation and Schuette's role in defending the state against water-related lawsuits.
Schuette also identified Flood's lead investigator as former FBI agent Andy Arena, who once headed the bureau's Detroit field office.
In a separate development Monday, the Detroit Free Press said independent environmental test results obtained by the newspaper show that the level of toxins in Flint's drinking water appears to be falling since the city switched back to Detroit's water system in October.
The report said eight percent of 853 water samples drawn from Flint homes between late September and January 15 exceeded safe levels for lead. It also quotes the scientist leading the independent study as saying the current numbers appear lower than those recorded in August, before the switch back to Detroit's water system.
But Virginia Tech university professor Marc Edwards said residents should continue using bottled water and filters until the crisis is resolved.
High-profile activists, political heat
The water crisis has spawned widespread anger and fear in Flint, a largely African-American city where 40 percent of the community's nearly 100,000 residents live in poverty.
It has also drawn sharp reactions from U.S. presidential candidates, with Democrats highly critical of the Republican governor's belated response to the crisis and Republicans lauding Snyder for his public apology to the city and his promise to make things right.
Civil rights activists have blasted the state for its slow response and for current conditions in the city. Last week, longtime civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson called the city "a crime scene," while firebrand filmmaker Michael Moore described the situation in Flint as "a racial crisis."
Flint community leaders and concerned citizens are expected to pack a crisis meeting Tuesday led by Cornell Brooks, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.