When it comes to ensuring quality public health, timing can be everything. Prompt notifications to the masses on disease outbreaks, heightened air pollution levels or threats to the purity of drinking water sometimes can mean the difference between life and death.
That’s why we find it potentially reckless and disturbing that some state and local officials appear to have failed miserably in their moral obligation to promptly notify the 8,100 users of the Sebring municipal water system of elevated lead and copper levels detected in the community’s water from tests conducted last summer.
Learning of the impurities months later understandably has put many in the Mahoning County communities of Sebring, Beloit and Maple Ridge on edge.
Thus far, explanations from the OEPA and others on the delay have been too little too late. We therefore encourage legislators to close any and all loopholes that justify such dawdling and that risk even more dangerous threats to public health in the future. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman is exploring such legislative options now.
According to Sebring leaders and the region’s state legislators, the EPA publicly notified the village last Thursday of the mandate to issue a public warning against drinking water supplied by the village’s water system. The call came as a result of elevated copper and lead levels detected in seven of 44 homes tested last August.
A FEW NEW DEVELOPMENTS
On Sunday night, the OEPA offered a few insights into the mess. Craig W. Butler, director of the agency, said it is taking steps to revoke the water-treatment operator license of Jim Bates, who runs the Sebring system. The OEPA accuses him of falsifying reports and has opened a criminal investigation into his conduct. That investigation should proceed aggressively and rapidly.
Butler also admitted the Ohio EPA fell short. “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,” he said, adding that his office has begun to develop new protocols to ensure more prompt compliance with directives from local communities.
Nonetheless, we and others still find it puzzling that the OEPA did not order the public alerts much, much sooner.
Fortunately, for the affected residents, their state lawmakers – Schiavoni and State Rep. John Boccieri of Poland – are leading the charge for change and answers.
They have vowed to continue to press OEPA for a clear and detailed time line from testing to the order last week. We hope those details are forthcoming and include reports of communications between OEPA and Bates.
SOME ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENTS
Despite those and other troubling questions, there is now room for some optimism. Local, county and some state officials have responded responsibly in recent days. New state and local water tests released Sunday night show improvements with only a few water samples testing outside allowable levels of lead.
Blood screening for lead conducted at a Sebring elementary school Sunday indicated only five of 176 people tested may have lead in their blood above safe levels.
Those and other developments appear to lend credence to municipal leaders’ calls for calm. City Manager Richard Giroux and EPA officials agree that the source of the foul water is from faulty and antiquated distribution pipes or home pipes, not the village’s water treatment plant.
Nonetheless, the state wisely is taking no chances. Additional water monitoring, testing and bottled-water deliveries will continue until all tests come up clean and the threat is eliminated.
That public health threat also serves as a compelling reminder that the village is not alone in the dangers posed by aging underground infrastructure. As such, a joint resolution in the state Senate sponsored by Schiavoni deserves strong consideration. It calls for a $1 billion bond issue contingent on Ohio voter approval dedicated to repairs and replacement of antiquated waterlines and sewer systems.
In Sebring, as in the fouling of Mill Creek Park’s lakes and the corruption of the Flint, Mich., water system, ensuring safe water to all has opened a national conversation toward constructing fail-safe plans of action.
In Sebring’s case, let that plan of action begin with a thorough explanation for the delays and missteps in its current water dilemma and a state legislative remedy to ensure such foul foot-dragging never happens again.