FINDLAY - After closing the rest areas along I-75 just south of Findlay last month, the Ohio Department of Transportation has agreed to pay $110,400 in penalties for drinking water violations at the two rest stops and another in northeast Ohio.
According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, water samples from the two Findlay rest areas and one on I-76 in Portage County tested positive for total coliform bacteria - a red flag that means other organisms that cause gastrointestinal illnesses may be present.
"We call that an indicator. If you see it, there could be other things," said Dina Pierce, spokesman for the Ohio EPA. "It just indicates there could be other contaminants that lead to gastrointestinal illnesses."
Lindsay Mendicino, spokesman for ODOT, said the Findlay rest areas - along with the nine other rest areas in ODOT's District 1 - were closed Oct. 14 as a precautionary measure only. The EPA did not order the closures.
"While we are definitely serious about the EPA violations, we want to be clear that there was not a public health hazard. That was not why we closed them," she said. "We closed them because we were having reporting problems with our wells."
Since last month, five rest areas in the eight-county district have reopened, while the Findlay rest areas along with two on U.S. 23 between Upper Sandusky and Carey and two on U.S. 30 west of Van Wert remain shuttered, she said.
In Findlay, portable toilets with hand sanitizer are the only public facilities currently available.
The public cannot access the restrooms, lobby, or pay phones.
In the 11-page final findings and orders, ODOT was cited for repeatedly failing to monitor its water quality by performing the appropriate tests at the required intervals, not doing repeat sampling after finding total coliform in the samples, and failing to post public notices as required between 2000 and 2004.
Ms. Pierce said the EPA was not aware of any reports of motorists becoming ill after visiting the rest areas, although it's unlikely the agency would hear about any such cases.
"When people are traveling, they sometimes get sick, but if they did report it, it probably went to a health department," she said.
As part of ODOT's penalties, the agency is to use at least $58,320 to hire a laboratory to conduct daily water monitoring at the Findlay rest areas and contribute $22,080 to the Ohio EPA's Clean Diesel School Bus Fund.
Ms. Mendicino said the money would come from ODOT's facilities operating fund, which is derived from state gas taxes.
She said the still-closed rest areas would not reopen until the problem has been resolved.
"This is not a widespread thing," Ms. Mendicino added. "We maintain almost 100 rest-area facilities with water where we have not had issues like this. It is something that is not acceptable to us."
For travelers on I-75, the rest areas nearest Findlay that are open are just south of U.S. 6 near Bowling Green and just south of Lima.
Contact Jennifer Feehan