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In an Ohio Town, Officials Waited Months to Disclose Dangerous Lead Levels

Massive shipments of bottled water in a warehouse.
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Residents of Sebring, Ohio have been picking up bottled water after they learned some homes were found to have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. Public officials knew months ago. But the community wasn't officially informed until January 21

At the community center in tiny Sebring, Ohio, it’s clear there’s something going on. There are trucks from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. People are wearing official-looking fluorescent yellow jackets. The Red Cross is here. And residents are picking up bottled water.

Sebring resident Mary Jordan is among them, and she’s not happy about it.  She and 8,000 other water customers just heard that some homes were found to have elevated levels of lead in the water. Public officials knew months ago.  But the community wasn’t officially informed until January 21.

This story was produced by The Allegheny Front.

Jordan says she’s now afraid of the water.

“I just had back surgery, so I have open wounds,” she says. “And taking showers in it and all—the lead does absorb through your skin.”

More often, people are exposed to lead through drinking water. Even low levels of lead in the blood can cause health problems for children such as hyperactivity, learning problems and lowered IQ.

Sebring schools were closed a few days this week while the water was tested. Most results found no lead. But a couple of tests did find lead at levels above allowable federal standards.

That has Chris Blake worried. She has grandchildren in the schools.

“You know, it’s really scary,” Blake says, as she loads cases of bottled water into her car. “I didn’t find out until Saturday. The city itself didn’t let us know.”

Heidi Griesmer, spokesperson for the Ohio EPA, says Sebring was supposed to let its water customers know about the high lead levels within 60 days of the findings. That would have been by the end of November.

“The game Sebring was playing, by giving us incomplete data time and time again, and not submitting the required documents, made it difficult for our field office to determine whether or not they were complying with the law and notifying their customers,” Griesmer says.

The EPA eventually got a signed document from Jim Bates, Sebring water superintendent, certifying that he had notified customers of the elevated lead levels. But Griesmer says it doesn’t appear that Bates actually sent out those notifications.

“Based on documentation that we have received, we suspect that the village provided fraudulent information to us, and we have started an investigation.”

In news reports, Jim Bates has denied the accusations.

Ohio EPA issued an emergency order this week, prohibiting him from operating the Sebring plant or any of the other water treatment plants he currently manages.

Meanwhile, some political leaders are calling for the resignation of Ohio EPA director Craig Butler for failing to act more quickly. Griesmer says the field office tried to work with Sebring last fall.

“It is clear that they may have been too patient with the village and should have escalated this to the director sooner,” she says.

The state has been collecting new water samples, delivering water test kits and establishing a screening clinic to test people for lead exposure.

As for making the water safe—the Ohio EPA says Sebring had stopped putting anti-corrosive chemicals in the water, which prevent lead from leaching from old pipes. Now that the village is adding those chemicals again, they’re seeing lower lead levels in people’s homes.