Multiple breakdowns in public trust have led to the village of Sebring, Ohio questioning not only local and state officials, but also the safety of their drinking water. This, after elevated levels of lead was found in their water supply. Most frustrating of all, the situation could have been mitigated if state and local officials had notified residents promptly and taken immediate remedial action. Instead, the situation dragged on for five months until residents were notified of the danger. All the while, certain citizens of Sebring were unknowingly drinking from taps known by local and state officials to have heightened levels of lead.
On August 11th, routine tests indicated high lead levels in drinking water. Five months passed during which the Ohio EPA and local water system officials discussed the results and response. During this time, Sebring missed a critical deadline — November 29th, 60 days after the end of the testing period — to notify the public. Then, nearly two months passed before the Ohio EPA took action on January 21st to issue a notice of violation, and the public was finally alerted of the possibility of unsafe drinking water in their homes.
The Mahoning County District Board of Health recently found elevated levels of lead in the blood of five children in Sebring. The possible implications of this to their long-term health are frightening. According to the Mayo Clinic, children are especially at risk when exposed to lead, with the possibility of: developmental delays, learning difficulties, hearing loss, and numerous digestive issues.
In order to ensure that no other Ohio community experiences the lack of safeguards that the village of Sebring dealt with, it is time to introduce proper checks between state and local officials in regards to water quality. The Director of the Ohio EPA, Craig Butler, has belatedly acknowledged for the current notification timelines need to be shortened. Currently, federal law dictates that an individual homeowner be notified within 30 days and the entire community notified within 60 days when a heightened level of lead is discovered in a sample. Director Butler conveyed a desire to have these periods limited to “a few days.” A recent bill introduced by Representative John Boccieri would shorten the timeline for notification and institute civil and criminal penalties on officials for the failure to properly notify a community of a heightened level of lead.
While the shortening of the timeline is a common sense change, there is much more that needs addressing. Specifically, monitoring rules should be carefully reviewed to make certain the frequency of tests — especially after changes to the water system occur — are adequate to ensure safety. As Flint and Sebring have made clear, changes to the system, including the use or discontinued use of additives can have an effect on the corrosive nature of drinking water on lead pipes. Safeguards need to be in place to verify that any changes made do not result in corrosion.
There are also changes that can be made at the federal level as well. Senator Sherrod Brown has introduced legislation that would require the U.S. EPA to notify local communities of the detection of lead in the water supply within 15 days if local and state officials fail to do so. A measure like this would prevent the lack of notification experienced by Sebring from happening to other communities in the future.
Providing safe drinking water is a bedrock aspect of Ohio’s public works. The State of Ohio’s economy ranks as the 25th largest in the world, just behind Sweden. There is no reason that all of our citizens should not be able consume drinking water that they are confident will not be harmful to themselves or their children.