SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN) – Two employees of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency have been terminated and one has been demoted due to the Sebring water crisis.
The employees were fired from the Ohio EPA’s Columbus and Twinsburg offices following an internal administrative review, the Ohio EPA announced Wednesday.
The investigation began after Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler learned that Sebring had failed to properly notify its customers of lead levels in certain homes and “repeatedly failed to provide timely and accurate information” to the Agency’s field office.
Sebring water customers learned that lead levels above the federal action level were discovered in several water test samples, but not until January 21, at least five months after the test results were available.
The Ohio EPA issued a notice of violation to Sebring on that day, requiring that the village to take corrective action and notify its customers immediately. The Agency also issued emergency orders prohibiting James Bates, the village’s water treatment plant operator, from operating any public water system in Ohio and revoked his license.
Bates is under criminal investigation for his actions. He had the opportunity to appeal the revoking of his license but chose not to, according to Butler.
Butler said, while “the most significant failures” were the fault of Bates, the EPA also dropped the ball.
“We have some failures on our part… we were very transparent in saying we were going to expose some failures we had,” he said.
The Ohio EPA said its review was launched because Butler had not learned of the issue until January 21, although letters from the Ohio EPA to Bates and Village Manager Richard Giroux were sent regarding the issue in November and December.
The Ohio EPA says the employees who were fired from the Central Office in Columbus failed to ensure that data was provided to the field office to help them conduct the agency’s review. According to the Ohio EPA, this prevented the agency from notifying Sebring residents.
Environmental Specialist Kenneth Baughman is being terminated for nonperformance. He was responsible for collecting lab data from communities and then distributing that data to field offices.
Baughman had been sending correspondence to the Village of Sebring since at least November due to the water issues.
Baughman’s supervisor, Julie Spangler, is also being terminated for not properly managing Baughman and providing appropriate corrective counseling or discipline, despite being instructed to do so, according to the EPA.
In addition, Nancy Rice, a manager in the Northeast District Office in Twinsburg, will be demoted for not elevating the Sebring issue to management or the Agency’s director when the district informed the village on Dec. 3, 2015. Rice should have elevated the issue sooner when it became clear that the village wasn’t taking their water review seriously, the Ohio EPA said.
The Ohio EPA has been criticized by state representatives, like John Boccieri, who has asked for a subpoena of Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler.
Boccieri (D-Poland) applauded the Ohio EPA’s actions Wednesday.
“These terminations are a public acknowledgement that the EPA knew about Sebring’s lead contamination on August 21, 2015,” Boccieri said. “Under the Ohio Revised Code section 6109.06, the Director of the EPA may notify residents when a water authority operator fails to do so, is negligent or chooses not to. I believe, from my investigation, without having public records requests delivered to me by the EPA, that this got to Director Butler’s desk in a less than timely fashion. I applaud the Director for taking action against subordinates who failed to get him this information and allowed constituents in my district to be harmed. Going forward, I hope the Director will work with me to tighten regulations and fix a process that is clearly broken.”
Butler said Boccieri’s records request was fulfilled Wednesday. He said it took some time to compile, as it was a large request. He said he would walk Boccieri through the timeline.
“It would become quite clear to him, that while there was some data that existed, it was not in a form that anybody could have determine that there was an exceedance until very late in 2015,” he said.
He acknowledged that the EPA shouldn’t have waited so long between December 4, 2015 — when he said they were notified — until January 21, when the notice of violation was sent.
“That time lag between December 4th, December 3rd and January 21st is where our conversations continued with Sebring to try to cajole them into doing what the federal law required, and we were not successful, but they should have brought that to me then and we would have acted much sooner,” he said.
The Ohio EPA says it has made revisions to its operating procedures involving lead in drinking water to ensure “this failure is not repeated.” The Agency has established a new process to provide staff with a direct and expedited communication route to senior Ohio EPA officials of situations that have possible “significant environmental and public health consequences.”
The Agency has sent recommendations to Ohio’s congressional delegation for improvements to federal lead rules, including challenges with the federal timelines for notification. The Agency is preparing recommendations to the Ohio Legislature to make certain the public’s expectations are met when lead is present in drinking water above federal action levels.
The latest round of water test results from Sebring show that 40 samples had lead levels exceeding the federal action levels. Those affected are receiving bottled water or filtration systems from the Village of Sebring, while it works to correct issues of acidic water, which caused lead from older pipes to leach into the water.
The EPA says the problem is not an issue with the water plant but a “very localized, individual home issue.”