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As lead threatens drinking water right here in Ohio, the OEC offers solutions

In the aftermath of widespread lead contamination in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, people across the country have started asking: could my water be contaminated, too? While Flint represents the worst-case scenario, we are learning that this is not an isolated problem. In late January, reports surfaced that Sebring, Ohio, a small community in northeast Ohio, had lead contamination in their water as well.

What we know about Sebring

In August, samples from the Sebring water system showed 7 of the 20 homes tested had unsafe amounts of lead present in the water. We now know that Sebring water plant officials stopped adding anti-corrosive chemicals to the village water supply at some point in time. When water is corrosive, lead and copper in old pipes in homes and service lines can leach out of the pipes and into the drinking water.

Questions remain as to why the water treatment facility stopped adding these inexpensive, anti-corrosives to the water in Sebring. But even more concerning is how long it took before the local water facility – and later Ohio EPA – informed Sebring residents of the high lead levels. In fact, citizens didn’t learn of this news until January, at least 5 months after the initial test results.

Ohio EPA’s response to the situation

The Ohio EPA issued a notice of violation on January 21 to the manager, James Bates, for failing to properly notify the households where samples were taken. Homes where samples were taken should have been notified within the 30 days. Everyone in the community should have been notified within 60 days.

The Ohio EPA says the water operator failed to cooperate with the state, and provided false, misleading, and inaccurate reports. To date they have launched a full investigation of what occurred, revoked James Bates operating license, and fired two and demoted one Ohio EPA staff. For more information on these events, check out the OEC’s full timeline.

What we still do not know

It is currently unclear as to when, exactly, Ohio EPA officially knew there were unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. There have been allegations by state lawmakers that the state knew of results as early as August. Most news reports indicate that the state knew in October. The OEC submitted a full public records request to Ohio EPA in order to conduct our own investigation of the issue. This week we received and will begin reviewing over 1,000 pages of public documents related to the Sebring incident.

Certainly citizens were left in the dark for far too long, and we believe there should be accountability at all levels of government. This is an incredibly serious issue that could have devastating effects on the lives of those affected. The OEC is committed to making sure this never happens again.

OEC’s solutions

The OEC believes that the federal and state rules regulating lead are outdated and not nearly protective enough given the grave public health risks of lead. That’s why we have developed a set of proposed legislative solutions to fix these problems. We have shared this proposal with experts, the media, Ohio EPA, and Ohio’s Congressional delegation.

Next we will be taking it to Ohio’s legislators to ask for their support in the form of legislative proposals. We also want to acknowledge the good work of Senator Joe Schiavoni (D-33) and Representative John Boccieri (D-59), who have each authored their own bills to address the situation in Sebring. We applaud their efforts and urge lawmakers go even further to protect Ohioans’ most precious resource, drinking water.

Stay tuned for ways you can get involved in this work and make sure you sign up for our email list to get the most current updates.