Sebring council chambers hosted a packed house last night as residents demanded answers in what is becoming both a health-related and governmental crisis.
According to letters from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Sebring, Ohio, public water system's lead problems — first publicly acknowledged on Jan. 21 — were identified as early as last November. (Sebring is a small village about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland.)
A Nov. 23 letter from the Ohio EPA expresses concerns over how Sebring water information was being filed with the state agency. Reports show that lead levels higher than the regulatory threshold of 15 parts per billion had been found in multiple locations. Seven residential homes clocked lead levels of 21 parts per billion.
The Ohio EPA ordered the Sebring city government to begin posting "informational notices" about a noted increase in lead levels in the water by Nov. 29, 2015. That did not happen. Public records reveal what appears to be an overly patient EPA allowing a lackadaisical village to sit on its hands for months at a time. (Read the full letters below.)
On Monday, the state ordered the suspension of Sebring Water Superintendent Jim Bates amid a criminal investigation into claims that he may have falsified reports pertaining to lead levels in the water system. Locally, however, scrutiny is landing on the desk of City Manager Richard Giroux, who oversees the superintendent’s duties and who says he passed along “a routine memo” to Bates, insisting that he follow up.
“I was under the assumption that he was following through on what he needed to do in order to make the EPA compliance,” Giroux said Monday night. He went on to say that he didn’t know there was “an issue” until a teleconference on Jan. 21. It’s unclear what he meant by that.
Giroux, pressed by an angry audience in council chambers, said that he passed the information along to council members in “one of [his] weekly memos” sometime before Jan. 21. It’s similarly unclear when or if that happened. On Tuesday morning, Scene requested copies of all memos sent from Giroux to council since Nov. 1, 2015.
[1:15 p.m. UPDATE: After receiving Giroux's weekly memos from Nov. 1 to present, we've determined that Giroux first mentions the water issue on Jan. 15:
[Giroux later adds on Jan. 22: "I would like to brief Council, at a later date, when the situation the details of the situation become fully known and the our response to the same" (sic)]
Indeed, Sebring residents, packed tightly into the municipal building Monday night, confronted Giroux and other local representatives to try and discern the timeline of how this lead advisory came to be. In short, we’ve learned, the people who knew about the extreme lead levels waited for months before taking action. Other officials were allegedly left in the dark, like the public. One councilman told the crowd Monday night that he first saw the EPA records on Monday after WKBN published them online.
Parsing out a sense of accountability is at least one element of the EPA’s ongoing investigation into Bates’ work. As far as residents’ perception of city management goes, there remains much up for debate.
“You ask if we drink the water,” Mayor Michael Pinkerton said, responding to a question from the crowd Monday night. “I’m telling you, we drink the water.”
He later exchanged words with a woman who said her 2-year-old child tested positive for the presence of lead in his blood. “Doesn’t mean it comes from the water, ma’am,” Giroux said. The audience groaned in unison.
"He wasn't eating paint, it had to come from the water," the woman replied.
As of press time, the school district remained closed, and bottled water was still being distributed in the city. The Sebring water system boasts some 8,100 Mahoning County customers — only a fraction of whom have confirmed lead in their water at home. It’s the fear, however, heightened by international news coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., that is pushing the small village’s residents to demand answers — and quickly.
The path toward safe drinking water in Sebring is the first question. Hot on its heels: Who could have prevented this?
Aaron Teis, holding his 12-day-old daughter in his arms while speaking with WKBN on Monday, squared the matter simply: “This city lacks communication.”