Ohio lawmakers say they want to know why Ohio EPA didn't inform public of lead problems earlier
Ohio EPA says it believes "a maximum of six homes" were affected by lead exposure
The state agency shows CNN a letter showing that the U.S. EPA's regional administrator supported its actions
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency knew in August that there was lead leakage into the water system of Sebring, Ohio, state lawmakers said Thursday.
State Rep. John Boccieri and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, both Democrats, called on the director of the Ohio EPA to publicly answer questions regarding recent evidence of lead exposure in the northeast Ohio village.
“We have received no answer to our repeated questions about steps taken by the EPA, which shares a moral and legal obligation to notify the public when such a crisis evolves, to remedy this crisis.” Boccieri wrote in a letter to Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger, a Republican.
Sebring is the latest place to find troubling amounts of lead in city water. The problem caused school closures to allow for further testing.
Flint, Michigan, is under a state of emergency while officials try to rid the city’s water system of lead. Lead “bio-accumulates” in the body, which means it stays and builds up over time, so ongoing exposure, even at extremely low levels, can become toxic. It is especially harmful to children.
In a statement to CNN, the Ohio EPA said it believes “a maximum of six homes” were affected by lead exposure, based on the department’s testing.
A water advisory alert for pregnant women and children was posted on the Ohio EPA website on December 3.
But Boccieri and Schiavoni said the Ohio EPA had knowledge of the lead leakage as early as August, citing reports from Ream & Haager Laboratory, a state-certified vendor that conducted the 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.
Results were sent back to the Sebring water treatment plant, as well, according to the laboratory.
The timeline of a crisis
The Ohio EPA received incomplete data from the treatment plant in the fall of 2015, which slowed the response to consumers, said Heidi Griesmer, deputy director of communications for the agency.
A September email from an Ohio EPA environmental specialist to Jim Bates, the operator of Sebring’s water treatment plant, expresses concern about the samples used by the treatment plant in its lead and copper tests, according to documents obtained by CNN.
Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said Sebring played a “cat-and-mouse game” with the agency during this time. He said in a statement on Sunday that his team was “too patient” in dealing with village officials.
Concerns about the town’s water samples continued into the fall.
In November, further documents show, the Ohio EPA asked the water system to provide missing documents from the treatment plant’s monitoring period between June 1 and September 30.
On December 3, the Ohio EPA sent a letter to Rick Giroux, Sebring’s village manager, stating that not only had lead measurements “exceeded the lead action level,” but also that the town should have delivered “public education materials” about the heightened lead levels by November 29.
The plant has a federally regulated responsibility to notify customers within 30 days of receiving results that show lead levels in excess of the allowable level, according to the Ohio EPA.
The next month, the Ohio EPA continued to talk with village government and the treatment plant regarding further corrosion studies. In mid-January the agency enforced violations against the city for its slow notification of the public. By January 25, schools were closed for further Ohio EPA testing.
The results of that recent testing, released on Tuesday by the Ohio EPA, showed that two water fountains in Sebring schools indicated samples above the federal allowable level for lead. Testing of an additional 28 homes last weekend showed three instances of elevated lead in the water. The Sebring water treatment plant tested 20 homes in the fall.
The homes were chosen in accordance with federal guidelines that “direct public water systems to sample homes that are known to have lead plumbing or lead service lines,” said Griesmer, the Ohio EPA spokeswoman.
“Through our investigation, we are still determining if they tested the correct homes and followed federal protocol in selecting those locations,” Griesmer said.
On Tuesday, the Ohio EPA said in a press release that it issued emergency orders prohibiting Bates, the Sebring treatment plant operator, from operating that plant or any other plant, and also proposing the revocation of his license. The agency also said it had opened an investigation “as it has reason to suspect the operator falsified reports,” a measure it had indicated it was pursuing in a press release two days earlier.
The Sebring Water Treatment plant deferred to Giroux, the village manager, to speak on their behalf, but calls for comment have not yet been returned.
Efforts to reach Bates directly were not immediately successful.
What did the Ohio EPA know?
Boccieri and Schiavoni have written multiple letters to Butler, the Ohio EPA director, demanding information. The state representatives question the lack of aggressiveness by the Ohio EPA in its dealings with the city, and want to know why the EPA did not take immediate action after the August 2015 testing results.
“To date, we have received no answer to repeated questions about steps taken by the EPA, which shares a moral and legal obligation to notify the public when such a crisis evolves,” Boccieri wrote in his letter Thursday.
The agency says it is doing all it can to ensure the best for both the town’s residents and the state, including a $25,000 grant to the town for filtration systems.
“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,” Butler said in Sunday’s statement.
The Ohio EPA provided CNN with a letter from the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dated January 2, showing support for the Ohio EPA’s actions and offering no other recommendations.
Rep. Boccieri, in his letter, called on the Ohio House of Representatives to subpoena Butler to testify in front of state legislators to further explain the situation.
“My mission right now is twofold,” Boccieri wrote. “I want to make sure that the community has safe drinking water while under this EPA advisory, and that the children who are affected get the best possible care. Second, I want to ensure that we amend the process in which the state responds to such health crises so that this does not happen to another community across the state.”
CNN’s Joseph Netto, Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, and John Newsome contributed to this report.