How can notification for lead contamination be improved?

A new report shows that environmental regulators in Ohio failed to release warnings of elevated lead levels in drinking water in a timely manner, and the mishandling of the system has the state's EPA and lawmakers calling for new policies to protect residents.

Mark Gillispie/AP/File
Pallets of water, ready for distribution in Sebring, Ohio, sit at the Sebring Community Center in January.

Several Ohio water systems failed to notify their customers of elevated lead levels in their drinking water in a timely or proper manner, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

The Dispatch found through Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records that 10 of 14 water systems in the state with lead contamination advisories did not let people know about the tainted water within the mandated time limit of two months, despite finding evidence of lead in tests conducted last year.

One of the water systems, in the northeastern Ohio village of Sebring, was was forced by the EPA to inform its residents about elevated lead levels in January after months of apparent bureaucratic mishandling or complicity. Water regulators there knew about the problem since tests were conducted last summer, and the state EPA was reported to have learned about the test results as early as October.

The EPA cited Sebring in late January, and followed up with a second violation notice last week after the village again failed to submit water test results to residents and regulators.

“When EPA staff followed up this weekend to conduct cautionary testing on a few homes that tested above the federal allowable level, it became evident that the village had not notified these residents of their recent test results as quickly and thoroughly as they should have,” Ohio EPA director Craig Butler said in an agency statement. “I expect the village to keep the public in mind and provide prompt information to its residents.”

Since the contamination situation was disclosed, several area schools and homes tested positive for high lead levels. It has since been determined that the Sebring area’s water source is clean, but older pipes are tainting the water they carry due to corrosion. Test results released last week showed that nearly 5 percent of samples taken in Sebring were above the federally allowable lead levels of 15 parts per billion. The EPA said that running water for several minutes before use would eliminate any possible lead threat.

Other affected water systems found throughout Ohio include schools, mobile home parks, a daycare center, and an arboretum, according to the Dispatch. The EPA has reported that people using water within those systems have been properly notified.

Officials in charge of the contaminated systems, including Sebring, have cited problems ranging from technology glitches to communication errors as the reason behind the delayed notifications, and the series of events has Ohio’s EPA calling for a review of federal contamination regulations.

“I believe federal rules regarding lead in drinking water are overly complicated, not easy to understand and not protective of human health,” Butler said in a January EPA release. “Following the federal rules have led to internal protocols that are inconsistent with other drinking water protocols. Ohio EPA is calling for US EPA to immediately overhaul its lead regulations.”

In addition, Butler suggested revising the testing policies for water suppliers and encouraging individual homeowners to conduct tests regardless of municipality and water regulator actions.

The mismanagement of the lead issue in Ohio coincides with the ongoing emergency in Flint, Mich., where similarly corroded piping exposed residents to water contaminated by lead. That lead crisis has also been viewed as a mishandling by government officials and environmental regulators.

The late notifications in Sebring and Flint prompted a call to shorten the federally mandated 60-day warning timeline to a period that would be more in line with residents’ expectations. The US House of Representatives passed a bill last week providing for notification from the federal EPA in the event of severe contamination, and could draw up further regulations regarding lead testing and resident notification.

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