By Peter H. Milliken
Jim Bates, Sebring water treatment plant superintendent, says any allegation that he falsified reports about lead and copper in the local water supply “is a downright lie.”
Village Manager Richard Giroux has placed Bates on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a state investigation amid concerns about lead and copper in the water supply.
That Monday announcement from Giroux came moments after he received an email from Andrew Barienbrock, manager of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters.
“Mr. Giroux, as we discussed, an emergency order which prohibits Mr. Bates from acting as your operator of record was issued this morning,” Barienbrock wrote.
Giroux said Monday he and Mayor J. Michael Pinkerton will meet soon with OEPA Director Craig W. Butler, most likely in Sebring, concerning the lead and copper issue in the municipal water system. Giroux said the exact time of that meeting is uncertain.
Butler said Bates was not properly performing his duties to protect public health and may have falsified reports.
“No, I didn’t,” falsify reports, Bates said by telephone from his Salem residence Monday evening. “That is a downright lie.”
Bates declined to go into detail, but he said he expects to explain his side of the story in the next two days.
Butler said the state has opened an investigation of Bates and is seeking a U.S. EPA criminal investigation of Bates’ actions.
The OEPA announced Sunday evening that it is taking steps to revoke Bates’ water treatment operator’s license.
Giroux said he learned about Butler’s statements concerning Bates in the media.
“My main concern is to resolve whatever issues there are and make sure the public has quality water” Giroux said. “Sebring will do whatever it needs to do to make sure that happens. We will do whatever EPA recommends that we do.”
Meanwhile, free distribution of cases of bottled water continued Monday at the Sebring Community Center, 305 W. Texas Ave., for the fourth consecutive day. The daily distribution will continue there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until further notice, said Dennis O’Hara, Mahoning County emergency management director.
The distribution began with 150 pallets of bottled water purchased and supplied by the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
More than 100 pallets have been distributed so far, O’Hara said.
“It will continue until further notice until the EPA tells us it’s not required,” Giroux said of the distribution.
schools still closed
Sebring Schools and West Branch schools remained closed Monday, with the exception of Knox and Damascus elementary schools, which use their own well water and are not on the Sebring public water system.
Sebring schools and the West Branch schools that were closed Monday will remain closed today.
“In light of the recent concerns about the Sebring water quality, we will not re-open school until we have the results of the EPA water tests,” said Scott R. Weingart, West Branch schools superintendent.
Today’s middle school and high school after-school activities are canceled or relocated, he added.
At village hall, Giroux announced that Bates, who has a Class 3 water supply plant operator’s license and earns about $46,000 a year, has been temporarily replaced by Christopher Harshman, a Class 2 operator, whose title is acting superintendent. Drinking water treatment plant operators are rank-ordered, with Class 4 being the highest license level.
The Sebring drinking water treatment plant is in Knox Township, Columbiana County, at the headwaters of the Mahoning River, which is the water source for the Sebring public water system.
A news release from Theresa Tolson, village solicitor, said OEPA advised the village that the Sebring water treatment plant is not in violation of lead or copper limits.
Giroux said he did not know whether there are any lead pipes in the village-owned water-distribution system.
He said he believes the lead in the water comes from lead in individual service connections to the village water supply and from water supply pipes within homes and businesses.
Giroux had said Friday that copper and lead apparently leached into drinking water from older residential water supply pipes.
No lead or copper is coming from the water treatment plant or the main distribution lines, he added.
Giroux said he believes he was first notified of the lead problem in the village water system when OEPA issued its Dec. 3 advisory, which is posted on the agency’s web site.
That advisory states: “Children and pregnant women should use bottled water or water from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead for cooking, drinking and baby formula preparation.”
Giroux said it was the water department’s responsibility to provide any required written notification to water customers concerning the lead problem.
Giroux declined to comment on the allegations against Bates. “I can’t comment on what I don’t know about,” he said.
The OEPA violation notices issued to Giroux Thursday tell part of the story about the agency’s concerns.
One notice says the village failed to collect lead samples from appropriate taps and failed to timely report test results to OEPA.
The lead levels were monitored between June and September 2015, during which the village exceeded the lead action level, the notice says.
Results of tap water sample tests were required to be submitted to OEPA within 10 days after the monitoring period ended, but OEPA didn’t receive the report until Dec. 11, the notice says.
“The form was incomplete, lacking complete addresses of sample sites, tap types and locations,” wrote Kurt M. Princic, chief of the agency’s northeast Ohio office in Twinsburg.
Another violation notice issued to Giroux Thursday cites the village water system for failing to issue lead notices to water consumers within 30 days after tap water monitoring results are known to system administrators.
On Dec. 22, OEPA received verification of consumer notices delivered Dec. 18 based on samples collected Aug. 11, and Sept. 1, 2 and 15.
However, on the form dated Dec. 18 and signed by Bates, a blank labeled “consumer notice acceptable” was checked in a box marked for OEPA use only.
“Ohio EPA takes all lead action level exceedences very seriously,” Princic wrote.
“Since a lead action level exceedence has occurred, a corrosion control study is required to be conducted. It is imperative that any treatment changes or addition of chemicals be carefully evaluated prior to implementation,” Chris Maslo, an OEPA drinking and ground water specialist, wrote to Giroux Jan. 15.
Lead may cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women, infants and children, the county health department warned. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and children receiving water from the Sebring system should use bottled water for cooking, drinking and baby formula preparation, the health department said Friday.
The county health department urged residents not to cook with or drink water from the hot water tap and not to boil the water, because boiling doesn’t remove lead.
On the same day the Ohio EPA cited Sebring for water supply violations, Giroux issued a precautionary advisory Thursday evening, urging pregnant women and children using that water system to stop drinking the tap water until further testing could be conducted. Other residents were advised to reduce their potential lead exposure by running the water for 30 seconds to two minutes until it is noticeably colder, to flush out the lead before using the water.
On Thursday, Giroux announced that lead levels of 21 parts per billion were found in the water in seven of 40 homes tested in the distribution system, which serves 8,100 homes and businesses in the Sebring and Beloit area.
The federal action level for lead, which can be irreversibly toxic to the neurological systems of children, is 15 parts per billion.
State Sen. Joseph Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, who received a 10:15 p.m. Thursday conference call on this matter, questioned why the high lead levels were detected in water samples collected last summer, with results released in the fall, but there was no warning in the media until Thursday.
The issue here is coming to light after dangerously high lead levels, which were downplayed by public officials, caused a water crisis in Flint, Mich., which received national attention.
In addition to OEPA, the Ohio Department of Health has also weighed in on the Sebring water contamination problem.
“Based on confirmatory testing, public health officials will conduct an environmental assessment to determine the most probable cause of the elevated blood lead levels,” found in tests of some Sebring area people, said Russ Kennedy, communications director for the Ohio Department of Health.
“The most probable cause in 90 percent of elevated blood-lead levels that ODH finds in environmental assessments is deteriorating lead-based paint,” he added.
Five of 176 area residents tested in a Sunday Sebring blood lead level screening by the county health department had blood lead levels above the allowable amount.