EPA: Sebring knew of high lead levels in water since December

sebring ohio water treatment plant
The Sebring, Ohio water treatment plant.

SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN) – Letters from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the Village of Sebring show problems with lead in the village’s water supply, dating back to at least November.

Sebring water customers — which include approximately 8,100 residents in Sebring, Beloit, Maple Ridge and parts of Smith Township — weren’t officially notified by the village until Thursday, however. It was then the village issued an advisory, urging pregnant women and children to avoid drinking the water and others to flush it before using it.

The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to lead in pregnant women and young children could create health problems. Those health problems can include reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth in pregnant women and behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia in children.

When asked about the EPA letters, Village Manager Richard Giroux initially denied that he had received them. A letter, written from the Ohio EPA to Giroux, state that tests from the June through September 2015 monitoring period showed that the village’s water exceeded the lead action level. That letter was dated December 3, 2015.

EPA Letters to Sebring

Another, dated December 22, is a Verification of Lead Consumer Notice Issuance signed by Sebring Water Superintendent James Bates. When contacted Friday night, he said the notice was sent to those immediately affected by the high levels of lead — in seven of 40 tested areas where samples showed lead levels at 21-parts-per-billion, above federal standards that require action for readings above 15-parts-per-billion.

When asked whether that notice was sent to all Sebring water customers, he said he could not comment and directed all questions to Giroux. In the notice Bates signed, it says the notices were mailed to locations where samples were collected on December 18 but it lists no other actions taken.

Photos: Timeline of Sebring’s lead levels

According to a letter from the Ohio EPA, the Village of Sebring was required to deliver public education materials by November 29, 2015 regarding the high lead levels. Part of those responsibilities included posting informational notices in a public place or common area in each building and distributing notices to each person served by the system.

The village was then required to report back to the Ohio EPA by December 31, and it’s unclear whether they did so.

agencies began passing out the water at 5 p.m. Friday at the Sebring Community Center on W. Texas Avenue
The Ohio and Mahoning County Emergency Management Associations have been passing out bottled water in Sebring for those who don’t want to drink tap water. The agencies began passing out the water at 5 p.m. Friday at the Sebring Community Center on W. Texas Avenue.

Ohio EPA Director of Communications Heidi Greismer said the village did wait too long to notify its customers, although she did not specify when they learned of the lead problems.

“We agree that it took too long for the village of Sebring to alert their customers. When it became clear they weren’t taking the corrective action necessary in a timely manner, we issued a notice of violation to force them to take action,” she said via email Friday night. “The village does have a good water system, but they must take steps to stop the corrosion that is causing some residents to see higher than allowed levels of lead.”

Greismer said it was the Sebring Water Plant’s responsibility to notify the public, not the EPA’s. A drinking water advisory alert on the EPA’s website shows that the advisory has been in effect since December 3.

Two Ohio lawmakers say they are upset that the Ohio EPA and the village knew about the problem for some time. In a letter sent to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Friday, Ohio Senator Joe Schiavoni and Representative John Boccieri claimed that by Ohio law, the EPA should have told the people affected by December 10.

“If I’m somebody who lives in Sebring, I wouldn’t be too happy,” Schiavoni said. “It seems weird that there was all this discussion.”

When contacted Friday about the lead levels, Giroux denied that the village knew of the elevated levels until just recently. He said the village office was notified “just a few days ago.”

“The first thing my office did, after we were aware of it, we were in conversation immediately with the EPA,” he said.

Giroux said the village had a teleconference with EPA representatives Thursday morning “to go over the situation” and “make sure the notices had gone out.”

In a letter to the EPA dated January 15, the EPA notes that a phone conversation was held on January 13 between Bates and the EPA about the issue. The agency recommended a corrosion control study.

The Ohio EPA and Sebring city officials were doing more tests Friday to try to determine what caused elevated levels of lead in their water.

The Ohio EPA began testing locations that it calls, “Tier 1,” which includes single-family homes and possibly some multiple-family living locations. Tests began near Sebring Local Schools’ campus first, and school was closed for the day on Friday due to the water issues.

Officials hope to get results from those tests back Sunday or Monday, at the latest.

Giroux said in talking with the EPA, they believe that water from their facility may be reacting with lead in pipes in people’s homes to cause the elevated levels. He said the problem is not with the headwaters of the Mahoning River, where Sebring gets its water, nor with the city’s water plant or the distribution system, which he says is different from the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan. There, the corrosive water lacked adequate treatment and caused lead to leach from old pipes in homes and schools.

Giroux said the concern is really for older homes and buildings like schools that would have been built prior to 1983.

Meanwhile, the Ohio and Mahoning County Emergency Management Associations have been passing out bottled water in Sebring for those who don’t want to drink tap water.

The agencies began passing out the water at 5 p.m. Friday at the Sebring Community Center on W. Texas Avenue. People can also get water Saturday from  8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Monday to Friday of next week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Customers that do opt to drink the water are advised to run it for about 30 seconds before using it to flush the lead out. The EPA says there can be a danger to pregnant and breastfeeding women and children who are exposed to high levels of lead, and those at-risk individuals are advised not to drink the water.

The village is having a blood lead screening clinic to test lead levels in those people on Sunday.

The village of Sebring recently built a $2 million addition to its water treatment plant in order to meet EPA standards after contaminants, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, were found to exceed EPA levels.

The contaminants are created when materials such as leaves, grass and twigs mix with chlorine that is used to disinfect surface water.

An expert in lead water testing said improvements to the water plant could have led to the lead issues, as the improvements could have caused more acidic water.

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