Sebring charges reinforce commitment to safe water

Thursday, July 21, 2016

State charges filed last week against the former water-system operator in Sebring illustrate that Ohio means business when evidence mounts that those entrusted with protecting the purity of our drinking water fall short.

They put other would-be derelict protectors of clean water on notice that irresponsible behaviors will not go unpunished.

Adjudication of that case against James Bates of Salem, coupled with enactment this summer of stronger state clean-water statutes, should put an end to the controversy flowing from the high lead levels in that Mahoning County water system that triggered a public-health scare earlier this year.

Those developments, however, will not put to rest the ongoing need for vigilance among local, state and federal watchdogs over the sanctity of public-water supplies. Clearly, much more work remains.

IMPETUS FOR REFORMS

The impetus for meatier oversight of drinking-water supplies in Ohio began in earnest in January, when word of lead contamination in Sebring’s water system that serves 8,100 customers became alarming state and national news. Excessive lead levels there actually had been detected five months earlier in August 2015.

That disturbing time gap before the water district’s customers learned of the pollutants served as the basis of three criminal misdemeanor charges filed by Attorney General Mike DeWine and EPA Director Craig Butler in Mahoning County Court last week .

Bates was charged with two counts of recklessly failing to provide timely notice of excessive lead levels found in water samples and one count of recklessly failing to provide timely public education on safeguards to take during the water alert.

In response to the Sebring fiasco, Ohio state representatives and senators acted with uncharacteristic speed and alacrity to draft and approve House Bill 512. It works to ensure Ohioans will never again face the irresponsible bumbling and inaction that played out in Sebring and Columbus for far too long.

That new law requires public notification of contamination by lead, copper or other pollutants, within two business days of confirming test results – rather than the previous outrageously generous 30-day window.

HB 512, however, must not be viewed as the last legislative stop en route to maximum water-quality protection. Rather, on both the state and federal levels, it should serve as the first sturdy leg of a more structural and strategic journey toward guaranteeing the purity of drinking water and improving outdated wastewater treatment systems.

At the state level, state Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, a powerhouse behind creation and enactment of HB 512, worked unsuccessfully last spring to make the bill much more comprehensive.

Specifically, Bocieri sought to make its tough reporting provisions apply equally to local and state public-water workers. He offered amendments that would have applied the same criminal and civil penalties for notification violations also to the Ohio EPA and its staff.

“I’m aware of compliance issues at the local level, but I still feel strongly that accountability for public safety, as it relates to lead in our drinking water, is a shared responsibility with the state,” he said.

Indeed, state officials had known of high lead levels in Sebring for months and they, too, failed to intercede. Though two OEPA officers were fired over that ineptitude – as was Bates in Sebring – the two state workers are not subject to the same criminal penalties.

That’s one glaring gap in the law that Boccieri and others should work anew to close this fall. Other viable efforts the state rep and others endorse include greater state assistance to replace hazardous lead-containing water pipes.

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

After all, the American Society for Civil Engineers has rated most of America’s drinking-water infrastructure as “nearing the end of its useful life” and replacement of the nation’s pipelines – 98 percent of which contain lead – would cost more than $1 trillion.

On the federal level, legislation in Congress sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, responds to that need as well. It would offer competitive grants to communities to renovate outdated sewer systems and remove combined sewage overflows, the likes of which closed Mill Creek MetroParks lakes last summer.

To be sure, public-water supplies across the state and nation demand more oversight and investment. But the water crises this year in Sebring and in Flint, Mich., did produce some positive results in jettisoning our aging water and sewer infrastructure to the top tier of the nation’s public-policy agenda.

In the name of sound public health, that momentum must proceed full speed ahead.