One year later: Are Sebring’s water issues solved?

Gary Helmick's family used their tap water for months before they were told about lead contamination in the village

Water generic


SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN) – It has been one year since Sebring residents learned –– after five months of positive tests — that the lead levels in the drinking water were dangerously high.

Gary Helmick’s family used their tap water for cooking, drinking and washing for months before they were told about lead contamination in the village. As a result, their two-year-old son tested with higher levels of lead just after the village notified water customers about the contaminated water.

Doctors have been watching the boy for signs of trouble.

“Everything seems fine. He’s acting like a normal 2-year-old. He’s almost 3. He’s just acting fine,” Gary Helmick said.

Helmick said he has learned to keep pressing authorities when he has questions about his drinking water.

“Call the city. Ask questions. If you don’t get answers from them, call the EPA,” he said.

Sebring’s former water superintendent, Jim Bates, was accused of hiding the lead tests from the community. He is currently facing charges related to violating drinking water regulations and is due back in court on February 9.

Sen. Joe Schiavoni said it’s important that this incident doesn’t happen again.

“A mother who was mixing her formula using tap water for 30 days, when the state and village knew about it, and she’s mixing formula because she doesn’t know about it. That cannot happen,” he said.

EPA’s timeline of the Sebring investigation

Under the old timeline, if rules were followed, villages could go months without telling the public about lead tests.

That’s no longer the case.

“I think lessons learned, for not only Sebring but statewide and for state officials. The notification is compressed. There is almost instant notification,” said Sebring Village Manager Rich Giroux.

Schiavoni lobbied hard to make regulations tougher and to get information out sooner.

“Some of those provisions in the bill I proposed actually got put into Governor Kasich’s budget last year. Great, but not enough. We need to do more,” Schiavoni said.

Ohio’s new law requires a two-day notification after high lead levels are found in the water. The old law was that water plants had 30 days to notify all affected residents.

Communities are also required to conduct a public education campaign within 30 days of finding lead in the water supply, instead of 60 days.

Giroux said after millions of dollars in upgrades, Sebring’s problems have been managed. In October, only one person was notified of high levels — down from dozens of tests that were a cause for concern last year.

“We’re slowly getting back to normal,” he said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown said progress is being made to improve the system, but it’s not happening fast enough.

“We need the federal government to partner with local communities to invest in water and sewer pipes that are clean and not contaminated. We didn’t have that in Sebring, this is what needed to be fixed.”

Giroux said he is going to ask the EPA to back away from the monthly testing that is now being done in the village since there have been such improvements. He said it will save Sebring tens of thousands of dollars.

COVERAGE ON THE SEBRING WATER CRISIS

Sebring isn’t the only area with contamination problems.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency noted violations in several communities in Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties. Listed below are local communities and entities that have tested above the action level (0.015 mg/L) for lead, according to the EPA:

  • Concord Care of Hartford 
    1/1/2008: 0.591 mg/L
    7/1/2011: 0.138 mg/L
    7/1/2012: 0.048 mg/L
  • Concord Care Center of Cortland
    1/1/2009: 0.035 mg/L
  • Ellsworth Elementary School
    7/1/2009: 1.447 mg/L
  • Glen at State Line Mobile Home Park 1
    1/1/2011: 0.0192 mg/L
  • Glen at State Line Mobile Home Park 2
    1/1/2005: 0.265 mg/L
    1/1/2001: 0.0157 mg/L
  • Guilford Highlands Mobile Home Park
    1/1/2010: 0.0220 mg/L
  • Jackson/Milton Metro Water District
    1/1/2008: 0.0710 mg/L
  • Pleasant Valley Church
    1/1/2006: 0.0170 mg/L
    1/1/2012: 0.0205 mg/L
  • Premier Park Estates/Town & Country Estates, Columbiana County
    1/1/2013: 0.017 mg/L
  • Sebring Village
    1/1/2013: 0.021 mg/L
  • South Range Local Schools K-12
    1/1/2012: 0.0174 mg/L
  • The Wellsville Foundry
    1/1/2010: 3.76 mg/L
  • Braceville Township Water District
    1/1/2012: 0.029 mg/L
  • Warren City
    1/1/2008: 0.0210 mg/L
  • Western Reserve Schools K-12
    1/1/2010: 0.0199mg/L

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