Ohio is again in the national spotlight for drinking-water contamination after unsafe levels of lead were discovered in a small community.
The situation in Sebring is similar to Flint, Michigan’s current water crisis, where the public was uninformed for months about toxins detected in the drinking-water supply.
Attorney Albert Ettinger, who has worked for decades on water quality policy, explains the Safe Drinking Water Act requires testing of public water supplies. But he says when no one’s watching, it’s hard to know what actually happens.
“The public is taking for granted that everybody’s doing their job,” says Ettinger. “The data is supposed to be collected. It’s just not always done, and we’re not seeing the staffing and enforcement that’s necessary to make sure it gets done.”
The Ohio EPA is requesting a criminal investigation into Sebring’s water superintendent, claiming he submitted falsified reports about high levels of lead discovered in some homes last year. Health officials say five children in Sebring tested positive for high levels of lead, although it’s unknown at this point if the cases are directly linked to the water supply.
The city’s water advisory could continue for six months to a year, and Jennifer Miller, director of the Sierra Club in Ohio, believes those safety concerns need to be taken seriously. She adds the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency needs to investigate how Sebring fell through the cracks, as well as ensuring that other communities are complying with the law.
“The stories in Flint and Sebring are heartbreaking and scary, and they should serve as a wake-up call for all of us,” says Miller. “Clean water truly is the lifeblood of our economy and our qualify of life.”
Ettinger says historically, drinking-water contamination is a major issue in cities around the country. But he contends the U.S. EPA has taken flack from Congress from coming down too hard on states.
“When anybody goes saying that U.S. EPA is over-regulating, that really should be taken with a grain of salt,” says Ettinger. “When it comes to protecting children’s health or anyone’s health, I don’t think we want to start berating U.S. EPA for coming down on states to make sure they do a good job.”
There have been many concerns about drinking water contamination in Ohio in recent years, including toxins linked to an algal bloom in Lake Erie that shut down Toledo’s water system in 2014 and bacteria found last summer in the Ohio River that threatened several water systems.