By William K. Alcorn
and Sean Barron
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said Sunday it is taking steps to revoke the Sebring water-treatment operator license of Jim Bates on the same day that five of 176 residents tested had lead levels in their blood above the allowed amount.
In addition, under the direction of Ohio EPA Director Craig W. Butler, the state agency has opened an investigation and is requesting assistance from the U.S. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division looking into Bates’ actions.
“Bates is not properly performing his duties in a manner that is protective of public health ... and the agency has reason to suspect that the operator falsified reports,” Butler said.
Also, the Ohio EPA said the village will not be able to lift its drinking water advisory for pregnant women and children 6 and under until it receives two rounds of successful sampling events in consecutive six-month periods. In addition, the village will be required to provide individual tests upon request by its residents.
In its statement, the Ohio EPA said the village of Sebring is making progress in eliminating lead from its water distribution system and residences, but not enough.
As Sebring makes changes to its water chemistry to reduce corrosion in homeowners’ piping, new water sampling showed progress as 25 of the 28 homes tested are below the federal guideline of 15 parts per billion.
Also, of 15 water samples taken at three local schools, lead levels in all but one were below the allowable level, said the Ohio EPA.
Of the 176 people tested Sunday by the Mahoning County health department, most of whom were children under 6, five had blood levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, a level that is actionable, said Patricia Sweeney, Mahoning County health commissioner.
Sweeney said the tests were finger sticks, and those who tested above 5 mg/dl should get a full blood test to confirm the results.
The Ohio EPA conducted tests at schools served by the Sebring water system.
Five tests at West Branch High School had no detection of lead; at McKinley Junior/Senior High, four tests had no detection of lead, but one water fountain had a higher than the allowable level; and at B.L. Elementary School, three tests detected no lead and two detected lead below the allowable level.
Butler said Ohio EPA would conduct additional tests Sunday night at McKinley Junior/Senior High and BL Elementary School to ensure the safety of the students.
Ohio EPA said separate tests from the water plant where it enters the water system, not included in the tests cited above, confirm the Sebring water treatment plant is healthy and has no detectable lead.
However, the state agency did not let Sebring off the hook.
While the treatment adjustments the water system has made appears to be working, there are three homes that remain above the federal allowable level. The village of Sebring has a legal obligation to develop a plan to adjust its treatment and processes to minimize lead from leeching into the water from residential piping, as well as issue quarterly news releases alerting the community to the risk from lead in water and notify homeowners of the test results for their homes, Butler said.
In addition, Ohio EPA is requiring the village to continue to test the water, provide bottled water or filtration systems to homes where results are over the federal allowable level and work with the county to provide health screening for residents. To assist the village, Ohio EPA is providing up to $25,000 in financial assistance to the village to provide these 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,” said Butler.
Butler also called on the U.S. EPA to immediately overhaul its lead regulations.
“I believe federal rules regarding lead in drinking water 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,” he said.
He also said his own agency is making changes.
“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. 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,” he said.
The village is still required to complete all immediate, short-term, and long-term actions required by state and federal law to adjust water chemistry, provide the public with information and conduct additional testing to confirm if these changes remain in effect, Butler said.
Earlier Sunday, Cara Gainor was among the 176 people tested for lead levels. She was grateful that an unhealthy lead level was not found in her 4-month-old son, Grayson, but slightly offsetting her relief was frustration.
“Why couldn’t you have told us when this first happened?” the Sebring woman asked.
Gainor was referring to the several months that have passed between when the OEPA tested for and found elevated lead and copper levels in drinking water from the Sebring village distribution system and when she and other residents learned of the finding.
As a result, Gainor and dozens of other breast-feeding or pregnant women came to a free clinic Sunday at B.L. Miller Elementary School, 506 W. Virginia Ave., to undergo blood lead screenings. Also being tested at the four-hour clinic were children under age 6.
The distribution system serves about 8,100 Sebring, Beloit and Maple Ridge residents, all of whom had received a recent advisory warning pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and children to refrain from drinking tap water from the system. A recent finding from seven residences revealed lead readings of 21 parts per billion; the federal-action level is 15 ppb.
At Sunday’s clinic, women and children quickly received the results of their lead levels, noted Sweeney.
Those with a reading of 5 mg/dl are encouraged to visit their physicians, Sweeney advised, adding that the Ohio Department of Health can visit their homes to conduct environmental tests.
In the meantime, residents should continue drinking bottled water until test results come back, she said.
Gainor said she is using bottled and distilled water largely for drinking and washing Grayson’s bottles.
Also relieved that her reading was below 5 mg/dl was Jamie Stahulak of Sebring, who came with her 10-month-old daughter, Penelope Cunningham.
“I’m just happy that nothing came of it,” Stahulak said, adding that she also wanted to be tested in case her home’s water-filtration system was not working properly.
Stahulak, who breast-feeds her baby, said she regularly uses bottled water, including for her dogs.
“A few days ago, I was hospitalized for flulike symptoms, so I wanted to be sure there was no lead on top of it,” said Addie Scott of Beloit, who is expecting her first child Feb. 5. “I [also] got tested for my baby’s sake.”
Scott added that she has heeded warnings not to use tap water, especially because she wants to ensure her baby will be as safe as possible. Another concern about the finding is that a high number of children live in the area, she said.
In addition to a low lead reading, being tested at the clinic provided added peace of mind for Tricia Cunningham, who is Penelope’s aunt.
“I live in an old house with old pipes,” said Cunningham, who also is pregnant and has an April 21 due date.
Like Scott, Cunningham’s primary reason for getting the screening was her child, she said.