By Ed Runyan
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, while attending an announcement Monday regarding federal funding to help solve problems with lead in drinking water in Sebring, also commented on a similar problem in Warren in 2008 – another instance of the public not being informed of high lead levels quickly.
In Warren, city officials failed to send notices to its 20,000 customers by a Nov. 29, 2009, deadline. The notices were supposed to “educate” them about lead hazards after 12 residential water tests out of 90 had lead at unacceptable levels.
Because the city failed to send the notices, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to the city in January 2010.
As in Sebring, the OEPA was not able to correct the failure to notify for weeks or months. An OEPA spokeswoman says she doesn’t know how many months it was in Warren’s case.
The city sent the notices with water bills in March 2010 in the city’s annual Consumer Confidence Report, though most Warren water customers apparently never read or understood the meaning of the notification.
Several people who were Warren council members in 2010, plus the utilities director at the time and then-Mayor Michael O’Brien all told The Vindicator last week even they didn’t know Warren’s water had high lead levels.
Ryan of Howland, D-13th, said the Sebring and Warren situations make it clear the OEPA’s system of notifying public doesn’t work. He said the answer might be for the OEPA to notify the public themselves instead of waiting for the local water department to do it.
“You’re the EPA. You have the scientific knowledge, the wherewithal. Why don’t you just do it?” the congressman said.
Ryan said the repeated failure of local communities to notify the public when there’s a water problem apparently stems from fear of the fallout that will come from it.
Heidi Griesmer, deputy director of communication for the OEPA, said the reason the local communities send out the notifications to their customers instead of the OEPA is because, “The water system knows who all their customers are, and it’s the water system’s responsibility.”
The OEPA, however, has asked its congressional delegation and state legislators to modify the state and federal laws regarding public notification because of notification issues seen in Sebring and Warren.
“Based on current regulations, water systems focus first on adjusting their water treatment and push off community notification to another day,” Craig Butler, director of the OEPA, said in a Feb. 9, 2016, letter to Ohio’s U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th.
Federal law also does not require systemwide notification if just a small number of water tests come back with high levels, even if the levels are significantly higher than allowed, Butler said.
Several high lead readings on Perkinswood Boulevard Southeast last fall in Warren, as reported in The Vindicator, is an example of that.
“We obviously think there are a lot of changes that need to be made,” Griesmer said. “We don’t think the current lead program is effective at protecting public health.”
The OEPA sent letters to all Ohio public water providers March 2, saying the agency is “implementing immediate changes in our lead program procedures.” One is a requirement that they issue a news release within five days of getting high lead results affecting the entire city, the letter says.