As media has focused on Flint MI for governmental failures that led to the release of toxic lead into the city’s drinking water, a second lead poisoning scandal has struck in another city. In Sebring, Ohio, schools are closed and citizens outraged while the water treatment operator is accused of falsifying reports. Tests found elevated levels of lead in 28 residences and one school in the village of approximately 4,400 people. A criminal investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected. The issue in Sebring is similar to Flint’s, but on a vastly smaller scale.
The Sebring water system serves 8,100 customers in three Mahoning County communities, approximately 60 miles from Cleveland. The Ohio EPA has ordered Sebring to maintain its health advisory for the dangers of lead for children and pregnant women for at least one year. The state EPA had failed to get the water treatment manager, James Bates, to alert the public to the danger. The water at the Sebring water treatment is considered safe, according to state officials. The pipes in seven of 20 older residences had been shown to have high levels of lead and copper had leached because of the slightly acidic water supplied by Sebring.
Exposure to lead is harmful to everyone, and has tremendous effects on unborn babies and young children by causing irreversible damage to brain development. It has been shown to lower intelligence and increased anti-social behavior, as well as stunting growth.
The state Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order on January 25 that forbids manager James Bates from working at the Sebring plant. It informed him that his operating license may be revoked for endangering the public and submitting "misleading, inaccurate or false reports."
Back on December 3, the state EPA warned residents about lead in their drinking water. On January 21, the state declared that the village was in violation of health standards when it found out that local officials "had failed to properly notify its customers" and failed to "provide timely and accurate information to the department's field office." Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said of the controversy, "It has become apparent that our field office was too patient in dealing with the village of Sebring's 'cat and mouse' game and should have had closer scrutiny on the water system meeting its deadlines." He added, that the state is “developing new protocols and appropriate personnel actions to ensure that our field staff takes action when it appears that a water system is not complying and taking their review seriously."
Steps have been taken to reduce corrosion in the pipes supplying water to customers in the village. But an advisory calling for citizens to filter their water remains in effect until Sebring can be shown to have achieved two rounds of lead-free sampling in consecutive six month periods. In Flint, when the water treatment plant neglected to add corrosion control to the drinking water the result was that pipes corroded and leached lead. As in Flint, in Sebring officials are supplying locals with bottled water and testing kits.
In Michigan, and nationally, critics of Gov. Rick Snyder (R) have cited “racism” as being at the root of alleged indifference to Flint’s plight. The stricken city has a 40 percent poverty rate, and has experienced decades of outmigration, crime, revenue loss, and unemployment ever since most of the local General Motors factories pulled out. Flint has a black population of 59.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Sebring’s population is 97.8 white, and only 0.6 percent black.