SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN) – It was standing-room only for a village council meeting on Monday night, held to address the concerns of Sebring residents who say they are not getting the answers they want from their representatives.
The questions on everybody’s minds were: Who knew what, when?
On Thursday, the village sent out an advisory to residents saying elevated levels of lead were found in some testing locations throughout Sebring. Since then, the village has run more tests and bottled water has been trucked in for Sebring Water customers.
But those in attendance at the council meeting on Monday were critical of the delayed response time from village officials. Correspondence from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Village of Sebring show concerns with water testing, beginning in late September. Elevated lead levels were noted by the EPA in November, but customers didn’t learn of the issues until Thursday, meaning that some people could have been drinking water containing lead for months.
“A lot of us have kids at home, and we’re extremely afraid, and we need a mayor to stand up, be honest with us, hold people accountable and fix this problem,” said one man in attendance.
He asked why the lead notification wasn’t posted on the village’s website. Village Mayor Michael Pinkerton responded, “It’s under construction.”
Those in attendance also asked the mayor, “Are you drinking the water?”
“In the morning, I let [the water] run for about 30 seconds, just like they said on the brochure, and then I use it, like I have been every day,” Pinkerton said.
One woman in attendance claimed her 2-year-old son had elevated levels of lead in his blood.
Pinkerton said those lead levels could have come from any source, which was followed by groans and outbursts from the audience.
The Mahoning County District Board of Health held a lead blood testing clinic on Sunday night. Five of those tested had elevated levels of lead in their blood, but it is unknown whether that could be attributed to the water or another source.
While many were critical of village officials, State Rep. John Boccieri, who was at Monday’s meeting, has been outspoken about the Ohio EPA’s role in the issue. He criticized the EPA for not sounding the alarm sooner.
“We are trying to investigate why the EPA had this information, the same information, quite frankly, that the village had, but there was no public notification,” he said.
The EPA was not in attendance at Monday’s meeting, but a representative is expected to be in town this week. An EPA spokeswoman acknowledged that there were issues on their end; she said the EPA was “too patient” with the Village of Sebring and claimed that Village Water Superintendent Jim Bates falsified records. A criminal investigation is now underway, and Bates has been suspended during the investigation.
The EPA added that it was the village’s responsibility to notify water customers of the readings, not the EPA’s.
In a press release from the village sent out earlier Monday morning, the village says it is cooperating with the EPA. The village noted that the lead problems were not found in the water plant, but the water was found to be slightly acidic and that may be causing lead from older pipes to leach into the water.
“We’re trying to track this thing down to find out where the ball was dropped,” Pinkerton said during Monday’s meeting.
Some Sebring residents, like Nora Rhinehart and Aaron Teis, said they aren’t optimistic about their future in the village. The couple just welcomed daughter Audrianna 12 days ago, and they have a four and a six-year-old at home.
They just found out about the water advisory two days ago and only heard about Monday’s meeting hours before. They said there is a real lack of communication within the village.
“We’ve been washing [Audrianna’s] bottles with this water since we brought her home, and there may have been lead in it,” Rhinehart said.