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Four hours south of Flint, feds target Ohio town’s lead problem

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer $400,000 to an Ohio village to combat a lead crisis that surfaced earlier this year, according to a news conference with city and congressional leaders this week.

Routine tests of the Sebring, Ohio water system revealed elevated lead levels last October, but residents were not warned about it until three months later.

Of the grant money awarded, roughly $70,000 will go to efforts already undertaken by the city to address the lead contamination. These includes distributing bottled water and free blood testing for affected homes.The remaining money is earmarked to cover costs to mitigate the contamination issue, including the installation of an automated pH-balancing system.

Under this initiative, Sebring "won’t have to wait for the EPA to act,” according to Ohio USDA rural development director Tony Logan.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials knew of the contamination as early as October, but initially only requested, via private communication to the city’s water utility manager, Jim Bates, that users of the water should be notified. However, residents weren’t notified until Jan. 21, when the Ohio EPA issued a notice of violation to the village’s water department.

Both Bates and two agents with the Ohio EPA - which is separate from the federal EPA - were fired over the incident.

Bates currently faces permanent revocation of his Class 3 Water Supply certification, which he reportedly plans to contest at a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing, according to an email to AMI Newswire from City Manager Richard Giroux. The State of Ohio and U.S. attorney’s office are investigating the failure to notify residents.

“Unfortunately, neither the public nor Sebring officials will know what actually transpired, why and when, until the issue is finalized,” Giroux wrote.

Sebring, whose public water system serves just over 8,000 people, issued warnings to residents and began handing out bottles of water at its schools after routine tri-annual testing of its water system. At that time, seven out of 40 testing samples showed levels well above the federal EPA maximum of 15 parts-per-billion.

Although the investigation is continuing, Giroux said in an email that the initial problem appeared to stem from a caustic chemical feed that was neglected, allowing the water system’s pH to dip to a level that leached copper and lead from pipes at the homes. He emphasized that the lead was not coming from the system itself, but rather from “service lines and household plumbing.”

The pH was “normalized several months ago,” Giroux said, and the high-pH water was “nearly” purged from the system as of March 23.

Giroux said that, to date, 1,163 samples have been tested with only 53 of those testing higher than the EPA limit. According to a March 18 press release from the Ohio EPA, the latest six requested tests all fell below the allowable limit.

In a March 21 press conference in the Sebring council chambers, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)  warned that ignoring water systems was going to continuing to cost taxpayers, both in mitigation and in health costs. “Our country’s infrastructure is getting old,” Ryan said. “We need to dig up these old pipes and put in new ones.”

The day after the press conference in Sebring, President Obama released a plan he said would help address the nation’s aging water infrastructure, including a commitment of roughly $35 million in federal grants toward advanced water science, and as much as $4 billion in private capital to nationwide water-infrastructure projects.

Shane Snyder, professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, whose research focuses on water contaminants, told AMI Newswire that water in the U.S. is “greatly undervalued” and needs significantly more state and federal investments. He said water systems, particularly in the Northeast where they can be a century old, would not meet the modern codes designed to prevent leaching of lead and other contaminants.

“When we charge one or two dollars for a 1,000 gallons of water, and we think that’s appropriate pricing, we are going to fail,” Snyder said. “People don’t really understand what goes into a safe and secure water main, you just turn the spigot and assume you’re good to go.”