SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN)— Criminal charges have been filed against the former operator of the village of Sebring’s public water system related to high lead levels found in the water late last year.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig W. Butler announced the charges Wednesday against James Bates. He is accused of failing to promptly notify citizens about the results of water samples tested last year.
“We’re subject to any leaves, twigs, grass cuttings, anything that gets in there,” Bates said in a March 2014 interview with First News.
Bates, of Salem, is charged with two counts of recklessly failing to provide timely notice of individual lead tap water results to affected consumers within 30 days of receiving lab results and one count of recklessly failing to provide timely system-wide public education within 60 days of the end of the lead and copper monitoring period.
The charges are both misdemeanors.
Bates was the operator of record for the village of Sebring’s public water system in 2015, when high lead samples were found in the water. Sebring water customers learned that lead levels above the federal action level set by the EPA were discovered in several water test samples, but not until January 21, at least five months after the test results were available.
The delay led to Bates’ removal from the position, as well as the firing of two Ohio EPA employees and demotion of another.
The 18-page document filed Wednesday details why Bates has been charged. A copy of the complaint and an affidavit from an Ohio EPA investigator are available on the Ohio Attorney General’s website.
The document states that based on three sets of test results on August 20, and September 10 and 15 of 2015, Bates was “aware of the lead exceedance.” Investigators claim he then “disregarded the requirement of consumer notification” and did not create a public education document until “significantly beyond the 60-day deadline.”
The document states that when Bates received the third results on September 24, “he knew there was a lead exceedance.”
On September 25, Bates told an EPA official he wanted to keep testing to get below the lead action level, but the official told Bates that “was unacceptable.”
EPA officials say they “provided multiple written documents” to Bates regarding non-compliance; documents that Bates “completely disregarded.”
When Sebring residents were finally notified of the lead issue on January 21, 2016, the schools closed and the village started passing out bottled water.
State Representative John Boccieri released a statement on the charges against Bates. He wrote that accountability is a shared responsibility with the state.
Boccieri was not pleased that the water crisis began in August of 2015 but no action was taken until January of 2016. He wrote, “I believe a more timely notification would have occurred.”
Samples taken by the EPA in Sebring are still coming back with high lead levels. Of recent tests taken on July 6, three samples came back with higher-than-normal readings. One of those homes tested was vacant, according to the Ohio EPA.
Bates’ first court hearing will be July 28. The maximum penalty if he is found guilty is four years in prison and a $10,000 fine per charge.