Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lawmakers Seek Answers As OEPA Launches Review Of Sebring's Lead-Laced Water

A pair of Democratic lawmakers is pressing for more details on how the village of Sebring was able to avoid alerting some customers of unacceptably high lead levels in their water for months.  In September, an EPA specialist first raised concerns with Sebring Water Superintendent Jim Bates. Further investigation found lead levels in water samples that were higher than permissible.  That discovery kicked off months of back-and-forth during which the state agency leaders say they attempted to determine whether the village had properly notified consumers of the danger.
"It has become apparent that our field office was too patient in dealing with the village of Sebring's 'cat and mouse' game and should have had closer scrutiny on the water system meeting its deadlines," Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said in a statement. "We are in the process of developing new protocols and appropriate personnel actions to ensure that our field staff takes action when it appears that a water system is not complying and taking their review seriously."

It turned out the village hadn't notified citizens, despite documents submitted to the state stating the contrary. Instead, notification was first distributed Thursday and only after the EPA issued a notice of violation and ordered immediate notification - sparking alarm and prompting schools to close.  Mr. Butler briefed lawmakers on the situation in a Thursday evening conference call. On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni and Rep. John Boccieri (D-Alliance) wrote a letter to Mr. Butler requesting more information and expressing an interest in helping distribute information to the public about the situation and to prevent a reoccurrence.

The EPA is now working to revoke Mr. Bates' water treatment operator license on the grounds that "he is not properly performing his duties in a manner that is protective of public health," according to a statement the EPA released Sunday.  "The agency also has reason to suspect that the operator falsified reports, so it has opened an investigation and is requesting assistance from U.S. EPA's Criminal Investigation Division," the statement continued.  The situation came to light as a high-profile water emergency unfolds in Flint, Mich. It was determined there that when officials switched the city's water supply in a cost-saving move in April 2014, they enabled corrosive water to enter the city's supply, eat away at lead piping and bring lead-contaminated water into homes.

The city and state downplayed the concerns of residents, telling them the water was safe even after tests confirmed unacceptable lead levels. It wasn't until Jan. 12 that Gov. Rick Snyder issued an emergency and mobilized the National Guard to distribute bottled water to residents. Days later, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency for the city.

Over the weekend, the Sebring situation caught national media attention, with CBS News suggesting in a headline that the village "may be the next Flint."

The EPA said Sunday that new water sampling results show progress - with 25 of 28 sampled homes showing adequate lead levels. Fifteen other samples were taken at three local schools with all but one sample showing a higher than allowable level of lead.  The EPA is requiring the village to continue water tests, provide bottled water or filtration systems to homes, and work with the county to provide health screening to residents. The agency is providing up to $25,000 in financial assistance to provide filtration systems.

"While the water system has a clean water source and supply, it is still unacceptable that a few individual homes are experiencing corrosion that is causing high levels of lead," Mr. Butler said. He used the situation to call for the U.S. EPA to overhaul its lead regulations, which he said "are overly complicated, not easy to understand and not protective of human health. Following the federal rules have led to internal protocols that are inconsistent with other drinking water protocols."

The situation prompted Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan (D-Youngstown) to question the testing of her own district's drinking water.  On Monday, she sent a letter to Mr. Butler, requesting a "thorough explanation" of the water testing process and the frequency with which those tests are conducted. In a separate letter, addressed to the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District Board of Directors, she questioned how often the water in Mahoning Valley is tested.  "Although there is no known issue with the MVSD, it is important that we remain vigilant to protect our families, who deserve the right to drink tap water without having to worry that it will harm or even kill them," Rep. Lepore-Hagan said in a statement. "While I am confident that our water system here is safe, I believe more frequent testing should be utilized to better ensure the ongoing quality of our drinking water."

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