Ohio town also wrestling with lead-tainted water

Mark Gillispie
Associated Press

Sebring, Ohio – — In a furor with echoes of the crisis in Flint, parents in and around Sebring no longer trust the water coming out of their taps — or the explanations from community leaders — after learning just days ago that high levels of lead were detected in some homes over the summer.

Residents in the rural area of about 8,100 people near the Rust Belt city of Youngstown are demanding to know why they were kept in the dark for months. Children are being tested for lead poisoning. Schools have been closed for three straight days. Bottled water is being passed out. And state regulators are calling for a criminal investigation of the water plant manager.

“How long has this been going on and how much did we drink it?” Nina McIlvain asked Tuesday as she loaded bottled water into her car. “I’m sure there’s more to it than we know.”

Over the summer, seven of 20 homes where the water is routinely tested showed excessive levels of lead. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the manager of the small water system that supplies Sebring and two other villages failed to notify the public within the required 60 days and submitted “misleading, inaccurate or false reports.”

Plant manager James Bates denied falsifying reports, calling the allegations an “outright lie.”

Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that the state EPA accused Bates in 2009 of repeatedly violating state rules over the previous several years and operating the plant in a manner that endangered public health. The records, unrelated to the recent lead testing, say he attempted to ignore poor water readings and submitted misleading, inaccurate or false reports.

Village Manager Richard Giroux maintained on Tuesday that he was unaware of the elevated lead results until last week. But a letter released by the Ohio EPA showed he was told in December.

Anger and frustration have been boiling over since Thursday, when the village warned that children and pregnant women shouldn’t drink the tap water. A standing-room-only crowd filled a council meeting Monday night, demanding answers and action.

The mayor told one mother whose son showed elevated lead levels that it was too early to blame the water entirely, prompting a chorus of jeers.

“They need to fix the problem,” Tonya Ludt said while picking up water Tuesday. “Forget about the finger-pointing and blaming.”