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In An Ohio Town, Officials Waited Months To Disclose Dangerous Lead Levels

bottled Water distribution at the Sebring Community Center in northeast Ohio.
Julie Grant
Allegheny Front
Water distribution at the Sebring Community Center in northeast Ohio.

At the community center in tiny Sebring, Ohio, it’s clear there’s something going on. There are trucks from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. People are wearing official-looking fluorescent yellow jackets. The Red Cross is here. And residents are picking up bottled water.


Sebring resident Mary Jordan is among them, and she’s not happy about it.  She and 8,000 other water customers just heard that some homes were found to have elevated levels of lead in the water. Public officials knew months ago.  But the community wasn’t officially informed until January 21.


Jordan says she’s now afraid of the water.


“I just had back surgery, so I have open wounds,” she says. “And taking showers in it and all—the lead does absorb through your skin.”


More often, people are exposed to lead through drinking water. Even low levels of lead in the blood can cause health problems for children, like hyperactivity, learning problems and lowered IQ.


Sebring schools were closed a few days this week while the water was tested. Most results found no lead. But a couple of tests did find lead at levels above allowable federal standards.


That has Chris Blake worried. She has grandchildren in the schools.


“You know it’s really scary,” Blake says, as she loads cases of bottled water into her car.  “I didn’t find out until Saturday. The city itself didn’t let us know.”


And that’s the key issue here—not just that some water tested positive for lead but that the water superintendent knew as far back as September.


Heidi Griesmer, spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, says Sebring was supposed to let its water customers know about the high lead levels within 60 days of the findings. That would have been by end of November.


“The game Sebring was playing, by giving us incomplete data time and time again, and not submitting the required documents, made it difficult to for our field office to determine whether or not they were complying with the law and notifying their customers,” Griesmer says.


The EPA eventually got a signed document from Jim Bates, Sebring water superintendent, certifying that he had notified customers of the elevated lead levels. But Griesmer says it doesn’t appear that Bates actually sent out those notifications.


“Based on documentation that we have received, we suspect that the village provided fraudulent information to us, and we have started an investigation.”


In news reports, Jim Bates has denied the accusations.


Ohio EPA issued an emergency order this week, prohibiting him from operating the Sebring plant or any of the other water treatment plant he currently manages.


Some political leaders, meanwhile, are calling for the resignation of Ohio EPA director Craig Butler for failing to act more quickly. Griesmer says the field office tried to work with Sebring last fall.


“It is clear that they may have been too patient with the village, and should have escalated this to the director sooner,” she says.


The state has been collecting new water samples, delivering water test kits and establishing a screening clinic to test people for lead exposure.


As for making the water safe—the Ohio EPA says Sebring had stopped putting anti-corrosive chemicals in the water, which prevent lead from leaching from old pipes. Now that the village is adding those chemicals again, they’re seeing lower lead levels in people’s homes.


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