An echo: Sebring, Ohio, has a lead problem in their drinking water, too

Multiple news outlets have been reporting recently about the lead-in-water problems faced by cities all over the US, not just in Flint, Michigan, as we covered in our first cover story a few days ago.  A lot of municipal water systems in the US are old and ill-maintained, and the effects of the lax management and outdated construction of those systems are starting to show.

Sebring, Ohio, a small town of 4,420 in north-eastern Ohio, is “facing a growing drinking water crisis” that seems like an echo of what Flint experienced in 2014-2015.  According to a CBS news report:

Sebring’s city manager issued an advisory Thursday night […] after seven of 20 homes where the water is routinely tested showed levels of lead and copper that exceeded USEPA standards.

The parallels between Flint and Sebring are extensive.  The CBS report also indicates that the local testing and monitoring agencies doctored test results and delayed informing the public, something that Flint residents will sadly understand too well.

On Sunday, the Ohio EPA said it is taking steps to revoke the license of James Bates, Sebring’s Water Superintendent. They say they have reason to suspect Bates falsified reports, according to WKBN.
The agency claims that Bates “is not properly performing his duties in a manner that is protective of public health.”

Compare that to an email sent by MDEQ’s Adam Rosenthal to City of Flint water sampler Mike Glasgow in June 2015:

We hope you have 61 more lead/copper samples collected and sent to the lab by 6/30/15, and that they will be below the AL for lead. As of now with 39 results, Flint’s 90th percentile is over the AL for lead.

To reiterate, Rosenthal is asking Glasgow to collect 61 samples of water, such that they will not be over the maximum allowed level for lead.  At the time that Rosenthal writes this, the 90th percentile estimate for Flint’s lead levels is over the federally allowed maximum level.  He wants this to be lower, and the way to do that is to ask Glasgow to collect samples with lower lead counts.

This, of course, is illegal.

FlintWaterStudy.org continues the discussion:

Instead, the MDEQ “revised” the City’s original LCR report, invalidating two high lead results, and as a result the 90th percentile was under the 15 ppb action level. But validity of the samples that had low lead in Flint’s water was never questioned. This is a problem, because the City has now admitted that they do not know which homes had lead pipe, even though it is stated in writing in the report that all sampled homes had lead pipe.
[…]
Hence, the City of Flint has not had a valid LCR [Lead and Copper Rule; a federal regulation from the EPA] sampling event since the switch to Flint River water.

Clarification in blue is mine

Meanwhile in Sebring, OH, a similar thing is being talked about.  Officials there, including Mr. Bates the Water Superintendent, were also dragging their feet and cutting corners, according to the state EPA office:

“The games the Village of Sebring was playing by giving us incomplete data time and time again, and not submitting the required documents, made it difficult for our field office to determine whether or not they had notified their customers,” said Heidi Griesmer, an Ohio EPA representative.

Like in Flint, the water leaving the village’s treatment plant is not contaminated with lead. The problem is “distribution lines”, just as in Flint.  An Ohio EPA spokesman explains:

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman James Lee told WFMJ-TV in Youngstown that the lead is not coming from the Sebring water treatment plant or the Mahoning River, where the village’s system gets its water.
Lee said the agency believes the traces of lead and copper are coming from smaller distribution lines and possibly old homes with lead pipes.

While there is not enough information to say this for sure, the parallels to Flint are remarkable, so it’s not a stretch to at least ask some questions — are the treatments being done to make Mahoning river water palatable also making it more corrosive or acidic?

And when the same spokesman also says things like:

We are working with Sebring water treatment plant to make adjustments to minimize leaching of lead into the water

It also warrants at least asking the question — were corrosion control measures in place in the Sebring water system before high lead was found in the drinking water?  What were those measures?

Ultimately, I think, it will take a study akin to the Hurley Medical Center study of infant blood levels in Flint, for the full extent of Sebring’s problem to become clear.  Look for at least some data to be coming out soon, because:

A blood lead screening clinic was held Sunday for area residents under age 6, along with pregnant or breastfeeding women who get their water from the village.

Tragedies like the one that unfolded in 2014-2015 in Flint and the one that is unfolding now in Sebring are clear violations of the human right to clean and safe water.  As such, it is imperative that we demand accountability and transparency in our water systems — but to do that, we need political and economic systems that encourage transparency and accountability as well.

In the case of the Flint crisis, the chain of causality leads all the way up to the injustice of uprooting local democracy by imposing single-minded budget slashers as all-powerful Emergency Managers.

Sadly, the case of Sebring also hints at similar mismanagement by private powers. Firstly, the public was notified late, just as they were in Flint.  Initial problems with the village’s lead levels were spotted as early as September 2015, more than four months before the general public was notified.  However, federal law required that the Sebring water treatment plant notify its customers within 30 days of abnormal testing.  That didn’t happen, according to the Columbus Dispatch:

[…]questions about the water in the community arose as early as fall 2015.
Sebring’s water treatment plant is required by federal law to notify customers within 30 days of learning that the water has level (sic) above the excess allowable level.

Secondly, Ohio Governor Jim Kasich is already fielding questions about his administration’s handling of the crisis, including at the most recent Republican presidential debate. And Kasich is already trundling out the same sort of not-quite-truths that characterized the Snyder administration’s early handling of the water crisis in Flint (if I had a nickel for every time I read about the “Flint City Council voting 7-1 to approve the KWA”…).  Also very telling was the fact that he compared the crisis in Flint not with the ongoing crisis in Sebring, but with a long-ago water contamination incident in Toledo in 2014.  Again from the Dispatch:

Kasich cited specifically the 2014 water crisis in Toledo, when toxic algae contaminated Toledo’s drinking water and forced that water system to shut down for several days. He mentioned Toledo and not Sebring during the debate, he said, because he believed Toledo’s problems and Flint’s came from a tainted water source, and that Flint was different from Sebring. But that is not exactly correct: In both Sebring and Flint, it appears water system operators did not control the acidity of the water. Water that is too acidic can corrode pipes and fixtures that contain lead, leaching lead into tap water.

 

I would be less kind than the author of the Dispatch and say that Kasich was in fact flat-out lying, or totally confused, when he said that Flint’s poisonous water came from a “tainted water source”.  If at this point you are a high-ranking elected official and you don’t understand the process of lead contamination in Flint, you are neglecting your duties.  If you’re a high-ranking official who is overseeing almost an identical crisis in your own jurisdiction, it is nigh-criminally negligent not to know what is causing it.

Keep an eye on Sebring, Ohio.  The measured lead levels there (only from regular testing sites) already exceeds the federal allowance — 21 ppb according to CBS.  The maximum allowed level is 15 ppb.  Once data starts coming in from blood lead screenings, be prepared to hear a lot more about this Ohio town.

 

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