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Mistrust, anger, fear build in northeast Ohio village

Residents feel misled over lead levels

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    A sign warns against using the water fountain at the Sebring Community Center. A water advisory will remain in place until the supplier passes a series of tests over the next year.

    BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN

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    Volunteers help load bottled water for residents at the Sebring Community Center in Sebring, Ohio. Residents picked up more than 12,000 bottles of state-supplied water last week at the community center.

    BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN

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    Sebring Mayor J. Michael Pinkerton drinks tap water at JP’s Snacks & Sodas despite a continuing water advisory.

    BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN

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Sebring Mayor J. Michael Pinkerton drinks tap water at JP’s Snacks & Sodas despite a continuing water advisory.

BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN Enlarge

SEBRING, Ohio — Mayor J. Michael Pinkerton was in JP’s Snacks & Sodas one day last week, eating his lunch and drinking a big glass of water that had been drawn from the tap.

He was one of the few, according to waitress Abigail Aberegg. 

She hadn’t filled many water glasses at the restaurant since Jan. 21, when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered the local water authority to notify its 8,100 customers that unsafe levels of lead had been discovered in the tap water at several homes and in school drinking fountains.

In the wake of the notification, the state issued a health advisory for pregnant women and children, warning them not to drink the water. 

The advisory will remain in effect until the water supplier passes a series of tests over the next year.

The high lead levels, as well as the months-long delay in notifying water customers, are similar, some residents say, to the problems in Flint, Mich., though on a much smaller scale. The problem, as in Flint, is that water from the plant is corrosive to older pipes and solder, causing lead to leach into water supplies.

“We’ve posted these signs about the water alert on the restaurant counter and tables, but we don’t have as much of a problem as Flint,” said Ms. Aberegg, who plans to have her 7-month-old son, John, tested for lead this week. “I think people here are more upset that this was hidden from us.”

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Volunteers help load bottled water for residents at the Sebring Community Center in Sebring, Ohio. Residents picked up more than 12,000 bottles of state-supplied water last week at the community center.

BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN Enlarge

Last summer, seven of 20 homes where the water is routinely tested by the Sebring Village Public Water System showed lead levels above the 15 parts-per-billion federal health standard. But the water supplier failed to issue the required public notice within 60 days to customers in rural Sebring and the nearby villages of Beloit and Maple Ridge, all about halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

The Ohio EPA, which became aware of the lead test readings in September, issued a notice of violation to the water supplier earlier this month for missing the notification deadline and an emergency order suspending the director, James Bates, from working at the water treatment plant.

The state agency also intends to revoke his operating license, charged him with submitting misleading and false reports, and has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to open a criminal investigation. Mr. Bates, who the state had previously accused of violations at the treatment plant in 2009, could not be reached for comment, but he told the Associated Press last week that he had done nothing wrong.

“Our water is not dangerous,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “The problem is happening in the lines in homes. But that said, we have a legal and moral obligation to make sure we have a safe water supply.”

In the week and a half since the high lead levels were disclosed, schools were shut down for three days, reopening on Wednesday with water fountains covered with plastic so they couldn’t be used. And Thursday afternoon, the Mahoning County Health Department handed out 100 plastic water-test bottles in 20 minutes and planned to distribute hundreds more Friday. Many of the businesses in the tiny crossroads town have already submitted water samples for testing and are awaiting results.

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Jo Ann Fullerton of Sebring, who picked up the last of the test bottles at the Sebring Municipal Building on Thursday, said she and her two teenage boys drink tap water daily and she uses it to make tea. “I’m very concerned, absolutely,” she said.

This week, two Sebring-area elementary schools are offering free blood tests for preschool and school-age children. And the state’s free distribution of bottled water will continue at the Sebring Community Center, where a steady stream of residents last week picked up more than 12,000 bottles.

“It’s like a hidden problem that we weren’t told about,” said David Hawkins, who stopped by to pick up three cases of bottled water Thursday and joked, “I wonder how much brain damage did I get already?”

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A sign warns against using the water fountain at the Sebring Community Center. A water advisory will remain in place until the supplier passes a series of tests over the next year.

BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE/JULIA RENDLEMAN Enlarge

But the water problems aren’t a laughing matter for Tiara Shell, who has children ages 9, 5, and 1.

“I’m very concerned because I can’t even wash my baby’s bottles in the water,” Ms. Shell said. “I’m angry we weren’t notified sooner. My kids have been drinking the water and bathing in it. My boy sucks on the wet washcloth. He doesn’t know any better.”

Exposure to high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, is hazardous to pregnant women, infants, and small children. Studies have shown that even low-level childhood lead exposure can affect mental capacity, and higher exposures can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, even seizures and death. Recent research indicates adults with elevated lead levels in their blood can experience hypertension, anemia, impaired brain function, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

State and local officials agree that water leaving the Sebring treatment plant doesn’t contain high lead levels, but corrosive or acidic water can leach lead out of old pipes and solder. In Flint, the more corrosive water flowed through the city’s old pipes after the city switched its water source to the Flint River and declined to use a chemical additive that would have prevented the release of lead from pipes.

Why the lead problems are occurring in Sebring is a question without a definitive answer, although state and local officials cite as probable causes fluctuations in the acidity levels — also known as pH — of the treated water leaving the plant. They also point to a construction project that began last summer and changes to the treatment chemicals used at the plant.

Mike Baker, chief of the Ohio EPA’s division of drinking and groundwater, said a review of the last several years of data at the water treatment plant showed “several periods of lower pH (higher acidity) water that could account for this.” He said new caustic chemicals were added to the treatment process last week to reduce the acidity of the water. As a result, water tests performed last weekend showed that only three of 28 homes tested had unsafe lead levels.

“The construction project made them change some chemical feeds, and any one of those could have changed the water chemistry and caused it to leach out the lead,” said Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, who was in Sebring on Thursday for a meeting with local officials.

He said the state will provide technical and financial support to bring in a professional engineer “to look at immediate measures to resolve the issue and correct the problem once and for all.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Don Hopey is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.Contact Don Hopey at dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey.

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