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Sebring boss knew of leaded water Oct. 7; he said he found out Dec. 3

Published: 3/6/16 @ 12:10


By Peter H. Milliken

milliken@vindy.com

SEBRING

Sebring’s water-treatment operator alerted the village manager last Oct. 7 to the lead problem in the village water system, nearly two months before the manager has said he believed he was first informed of the issue.

In an Oct. 7 email, Jim Bates, the operator whose license the state has since revoked, told village Manager Richard Giroux that the water system had failed lead and copper tests.

“For the last 22 years, we have just barely passed this test,” Bates told Giroux in an email of a detailed and clearly written memorandum dated Sept. 30.

“For the last 24 years, the water in Sebring has been slightly corrosive,” Bates wrote.

“While aggressive [corrosive] water is usually not dangerous to consume by itself, it can cause serious drinking-water quality problems by dissolving metals from plumbing systems,” Bates explained.

“This problem is caused by old waterlines going in old houses with lead used as its solder,” Bates added.

“We will be required to draw up plans to feed polyorthophosphate in a very small amount to correct this,” Bates told Giroux.

Giroux, who became village manager in May 2013, replied the same day, asking Bates: Is there “anything at the WTP [water treatment plant] that can be done to rectify this, or is it a waterline problem exclusively?”

No emailed response from Bates was contained in a series of emails supplied by the village in response to a Vindicator public-records request.

Giroux said he believes that’s because his subsequent discussions with Bates on the issue were either by telephone or face-to-face.

“My lawyer won’t let me say a thing,” Bates said when reached by telephone Friday at his Salem home. His lawyer, Nils Peter Johnson of Canfield, also declined to comment.

Sharp contrast

The Oct. 7 exchange between Bates and Giroux contrasts sharply with Giroux’s repeated statements at the Jan. 25 village council meeting that he didn’t think he knew about the lead problem before he received a Dec. 3 notice of it from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“Dec. 3 is the first I heard of it,” Giroux told council Jan. 25, four days after he issued the OEPA-required news release about the lead problem detected in August and September water sampling.

“So, you’re telling me that Mr. Bates had elevated lead levels in ... Sebring, and he did not discuss it with you anytime prior to Dec. 2,” Corey Hughes, of South 15th Street, said in that meeting.

“Not to my knowledge, no,” Giroux replied.

“Are you sure that’s the way you want to answer that question?” asked Hughes, a former village street department employee.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the case,” Giroux replied.

failed memory

“I really didn’t remember the memo” Bates sent Oct. 7, Giroux said in a recent interview, adding that he later found that memo. “I deal with hundreds of pieces of information every day,” Giroux added.

Giroux said he perceived the lead issue as requiring a technical adjustment in water chemistry until the Ohio EPA referred to it as a serious public health concern in its Jan. 21 letters to him.

Giroux also said it was Bates’ responsibility to make the necessary public notifications and that Bates had told him he would handle those matters.

Giroux said he told Bates to discuss the news release to be issued with OEPA officials and make sure that agency approved it.

In his weekly memo to council, dated Jan. 15, Giroux explained the problem and said: “The lead and copper violations will have to be publicized per EPA regs. We are drafting a press release to explain the anomaly.”

Village Mayor J. Michael Pinkerton said he first learned of the lead issue in the water system in the Jan. 15 memo, but he reserved other comments until he has an opportunity to further discuss the matter with council.

On Jan. 21, OEPA ordered Giroux to issue the news release immediately.

EPA BLASTS village

“The village of Sebring did not take their responsibility seriously during its required review of their water system,” said Heidi Griesmer, deputy director of communication for the Ohio EPA.

“This is not typical of how communities generally respond to their water-system reviews, and that made our field office’s job more difficult,” she added.

“We took it very seriously once we were aware that there was a lead issue,” Giroux said.

“It’s not like anything is being neglected on our end. We are committed to doing everything we need to do,” Giroux added.

“Nobody wanted this to happen. This isn’t intentional, and I didn’t create the lead crisis,” he added.

The memo Bates emailed to Giroux on Oct. 7 explained that the village had been required in the past to take 20 samples once every three years for lead testing.

However, it had to take 30 samples in 2009 and 40 in 2012 to pass the test, Bates explained.

“This year, we were at 40 samples, and the EPA suggested we stop,” Bates said, noting that seven of those 40 samples had elevated lead levels.

“We will be required to do a public notice for the whole system,” Bates told Giroux on Oct. 7.

Bates’ email to Giroux followed a Sept. 25 email to Bates from Chris Maslo, a Twinsburg-based OEPA environmental specialist, in which Maslo said: “I would not recommend any additional sampling at this time, as it appears you have a corrosion-control problem based upon the first 30 samples collected.”

Maslo added: “It would seem that energy and resources would be better spent on addressing and implementing corrosion control strategies.”

the malvern connection

Meanwhile, beginning in early October, Bates and Giroux had a new working relationship in Malvern, in addition to the one in Sebring.

On Oct. 5, Malvern Village Council hired Giroux to succeed Bates as that village’s part-time administrator, but kept Bates as Malvern water department superintendent, the Alliance Review reported.

Because the water superintendent is overseen by the village administrator, Malvern officials decided Bates shouldn’t hold both titles there.

Noting that he’s required to work only 10 hours a week for Malvern, Giroux said he doesn’t believe his evening and weekend moonlighting there has detracted from his ability to focus on the Sebring water crisis.

On Jan. 24, OEPA Director Craig W. Butler said Bates was not properly performing his duties to protect public health and may have falsified reports, and the state agency relieved Bates of his duties the following day.

Bates has emphatically denied falsifying reports.

“I have to rely on my chief [water treatment] operator because I’m not a technician. I’m not a plant operator. I’m a layman,” Giroux said.

As to whether the village manager should be held accountable for the performance of the water-treatment operator, Giroux said: “How can you know that there’s a performance deficiency until you’re advised of a performance deficiency or see it firsthand?”

no intention to resign

As to whether he should resign as Sebring administrator, Giroux said: “I don’t have any intention of resigning. I have a lot of work to do here. I’ve been working long hours to correct this situation” concerning lead in the drinking water, he said.

“It looks like the crisis is abating, and I think we will be back to normal this month,” Giroux said, noting that only 21 of 1,172 water samples tested so far were over the federal limit of 15 parts per billion of lead.

Orthophosphate was introduced into the water-supply system Monday as an anti-corrosive agent, and hydrant flushing, which began last week, will continue until orthophosphate is thoroughly introduced into the system, he said.

“Why would I be fired for something that I was advised by the person responsible that it was being handled?” Giroux asked in response to suggestions by speakers at the Jan. 25 Sebring council meeting that council should fire him for not notifying residents of the lead problem sooner.

With Bates having been placed on paid administrative leave from Sebring on Jan. 25 and unpaid leave the following day, village Solicitor Theresa T. Tolson said the U.S. Attorney’s office asked her to secure documents at the Sebring water-treatment plant.

Tolson said she sent Police Chief Ray Heverly to the plant to collect documents, file cabinets and Bates’ computers and secure them in a padlocked room there for state and federal investigators.

Tolson then accompanied the investigators to the plant Feb. 3 and signed a consent for a warrantless search at the Knox School Road plant in Knox Township, Columbiana County.

Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Agent Andrew Kalas seized a desktop computer and tower and a laptop computer and “miscellaneous documents related to lead and copper water sampling.”

Bates remains on unpaid administrative leave.

The village’s position was that it would cooperate with the investigation, Tolson said.


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