Criminal Investigation Looms in Sebring after Water Crisis Similar to Flint’s

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January 25, 2016; CBS News and CNN

There have been a plethora of apologies recently for the water crisis in Flint. What has not happened yet, though, is the filing of criminal charges against those responsible for allowing the Flint water catastrophe to happen and continue for so long. But that is not the case in the small town of Sebring, Ohio, where CBS affiliate WKBN reported that water treatment superintendent James Bates is facing a criminal investigation from Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Sebring, Ohio, is a small town of about 4,200 residents located 60 miles southeast of Cleveland. CNN reported that Ohio officials closed schools there on Monday due to concerns with the town’s drinking water, and the state EPA is advising residents not to drink tap water after samples showed unsafe lead levels in homes and schools. Tests showed lead levels at 21 parts per billion in some homes, according to Heidi Griesmer, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, well above the maximum 15 parts per billion allowed by the federal government.

Griesmer published a statement on the Ohio EPA website that advised that under Director Craig W. Butler’s direction, the Ohio EPA is taking steps to revoke the water treatment operator license of Jim Bates, the current licensed operator, as he is not properly performing his duties in a manner that is protective of public health. The agency also has reason to suspect that the operator falsified reports, so it has opened an investigation and is requesting help from U.S. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division.

Griesmer further said in the statement that after learning of the village’s failure to properly notify its customers and its repeated failure to provide timely and accurate information to the department’s field office, Director Butler issued a notice of violation to the village on January 21st, requiring that they tell their customers immediately.

Other agencies within state government also quickly responded by:

  • Deploying a team to assist in collecting 44 water samples in the area;
  • Shipping 150 pallets of water to the area to be available to those in need;
  • Delivering lead test kits to Mahoning County Health Department to enable testing of at-risk populations; and
  • Establishing a screening clinic at BL Miller School to test individuals for potential lead exposure.

“It has become apparent that our field office was too patient in dealing with the village of Sebring’s ‘cat and mouse’ game and should have had closer scrutiny on the water system meeting its deadlines,” said Butler. “We are in the process of developing new protocols and appropriate personnel actions to ensure that our field staff takes action when it appears that a water system is not complying and taking their review seriously.”

Despite the criminal investigation, Ohio EPA spokesman James Lee told WFMJ-TV in Youngstown that unlike in Flint, the lead is not coming from the Sebring water treatment plant or the Mahoning River, where the village’s system gets its water. A separate test from the water plant where it enters the water system, not included in the tests cited above, confirms the village of Sebring water treatment plant is healthy and has no detectable lead. EPA spokesperson James Lee told WFMJ-TV that the agency believes the traces of lead and copper are coming from smaller distribution lines and possibly old homes with lead pipes.

Director Butler also has some thoughts about the federal rules that govern lead in local drinking water. “I believe federal rules regarding lead in drinking water are overly complicated, not easy to understand and not protective of human health,” said Butler. “Following the federal rules have led to internal protocols that are inconsistent with other drinking water protocols. Ohio EPA is calling for U.S. EPA to immediately overhaul its lead regulations.”

Hopefully, with the impending criminal investigation in Sebring, and the current crisis in Flint, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will take steps to ensure that its lead regulations do enough to keep local residents safe.—Alexis Buchanan