Two Ohio EPA staffers on leave over lead in village's water

What is lead poisoning?
lead poisoning ts orig cohen_00003529

    JUST WATCHED

    What is lead poisoning?

MUST WATCH

What is lead poisoning? 01:12

Story highlights

  • Two Ohio EPA employees who work in the Sebring area office are on leave, a spokeswoman says
  • Agency: All 54 voluntary tap water samples in Sebring had allowable lead levels; an advisory is still in effect, though
  • Lawmakers have said the Ohio EPA knew about problems in August but didn't tell the public for months

(CNN)The water in Sebring, Ohio -- one of several communities nationwide with worries about lead coming out of the tap -- appears to be getting better.

But like in Flint, Michigan, the fallout from what's been happening in Sebring continues.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has put two employees from its field office that covers Sebring on administrative leave pending the results of an ongoing investigation, agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said Thursday.
The pair have been on leave since the start of last week, though Griesmer did not detail their positions or what they might have done wrong.
A day earlier, her agency announced that tests of all 54 water samples (from 53 homes) came back showing "lead levels ... below the federal allowable limit." This is consistent with other recent tests indicating "improving water conditions" in the village of about 4,400 people between Canton and Youngstown.
Still, this good news comes with caveats. Those tests involved only residents who asked to be tested, and the drinking water advisory remains in effect.
And, the state agency said, "The village is still required to complete all immediate, short-term and long-term actions required by the Ohio EPA Director."
That agency has come under fire for not acting faster to acknowledge and address Sebring's problems.
State Rep. John Boccieri and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni said late last month that the Ohio EPA knew lead was leaking into Sebring's water supply as far back as August, citing reports from Ream & Haager Laboratory, a state-certified vendor that conducted water tests.
Ream & Haager confirmed to the state legislators and, separately, to CNN that the lab's test results were sent to the Ohio EPA on August 21.
The next month, the state EPA issued a news release saying it was giving Sebring a $2.76 million loan to improve its wastewater treatment plant. Another release in October announced the village "will construct a new filter-to-waste treatment system for their drinking water plant helping to further purify local water supplies."
But neither of those announcements mentioned lead.
It wasn't until December that the agency finally told the public that something was wrong, in the form of recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that "children and pregnant women use bottled water or water from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead for cooking, drinking and baby formula preparation."
According to the CDC, while exposure to lead isn't good for anyone, "no safe blood level in children has been identified." The Mayo Clinic says that lead "can severely affect mental and physical development" in children and can even be fatal at high levels.
Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler has accused Sebring officials of playing a "cat-and-mouse game" with his agency last fall. He said in a statement last month that his team was "too patient" in dealing with village officials.
The Ohio EPA says village officials "failed to properly notify its customers" and repeatedly failed "to provide timely and accurate information" to the state agency's nearby field office.
In recent weeks, the Ohio EPA has taken steps to address Sebring's problems, including $25,000 for filtration systems, shipping bottled water to the village and conducting numerous tests.
Most, but not all, of those tests have shown lead levels below the level allowed by federal rules. On January 26, for instance, the state EPA said 121 of 123 samples taken from three area schools came back OK, with the two exceptions from drinking foundations at McKinley Junior/Senior High School.
Sebring's drinking water advisory won't be lifted until authorities "receive two rounds of successful sampling events in consecutive six-month periods," according to the state.