Flint, part two? Ohio town's pipes may be contaminated with lead

Lead found to be leaching from aging pipes into drinking water in Sebring, Ohio, again underscores the growing need for investment in the nation’s aging water infrastructure.

Conor Ralph/The Flint Journal/MLive.com/AP
Genesee County Volunteer Militia members and protesters gather for a rally outside of Flint City Hall on Sunday over the city's ongoing water supply crisis. A similar problem is surfacing in Sebring, Ohio, where officials have found elevated levels of lead in the town's water.

Tests that showed elevated levels of lead and copper in water flowing from an Ohio town’s taps has led officials to close schools Monday and order another round of inspections.

The city manager of Sebring, a small town of some 4,000 people located about 60 miles south of Cleveland, issued an advisory Thursday night warning children and pregnant women to avoid drinking the village system’s tap water after seven of 20 homes showed levels of copper and lead beyond US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

The warning comes as neighboring Michigan grapples with a lead-poisoning crisis in Flint – a disaster that experts say underscores the growing need for investment and innovation in the nation’s aging infrastructure. A weakened economy and the passage of time have made repair and replacement of old pipes a challenge, and have led to higher costs and a decline in water quality, especially in many older cities.

“Flint is a microcosm,” Robert Glennon, author of the book, “Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It,” told The Christian Science Monitor. “The maintenance of water systems and wastewater systems is not just an urban problem, or a problem for places with low-income residents. It’s a problem all over the nation that needs to be addressed.”

Indeed, in Sebring, smaller distribution lines and old homes with lead pipes appear to be the source of lead in the water, Ohio EPA spokesman James Lee told WFMJ-TV in Youngstown. Results showed lead levels in the seven homes at 21 parts per billion, exceeding the EPA’s recommended 15 parts per billion. Lead exposure is associated with serious health issues for young children and infants.

“We are working with Sebring water treatment plant to make adjustments to minimize leaching of lead into the water,” Mr. Lee said.

Over the last decade, other US cities have come to see the effects of the nation’s aging water infrastructure, from the lead crisis in Washington, D.C., in 2004 to a recent spate of water main breaks throughout Los Angeles.

Part of the problem is that pipes are often out of sight and out of mind. As the Monitor reported earlier in January:

Poor asset management, shrinking federal and state budgets, and a lack of political will to address the issue over decades has left the US with deteriorating water and wastewater systems – some dating back to the Civil War era – in urgent need of repair and replacement.

With more than one million miles of water mains across the country, the cost of restoring and expanding them to serve a growing population could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 25 years, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates. The EPA’s forecasts are more conservative – an investment of just over $330 billion over 20 years…

But with the federal government responsible for less than a quarter of all public spending on water infrastructure, the burden falls on state and local governments to coordinate and cover most of the costs, as the Brookings Institution points out.

Some cities are taking steps to address the issue. Chicago is in the midst of an ambitious 10-year plan to replace 900 miles of century-old pipes throughout the city – an initiative financed partly by payroll cuts at the Department of Water Management, increased water rates, and partnerships with private contractors. Long-term efforts are also underway in Baltimore to replace old pipes.

And within Ohio, Columbus has developed a plan to address its wastewater needs as well as invest further in eco-friendly infrastructure.

In Sebring, the school district canceled classes Friday and Monday for its 650 students as part of precautionary efforts. The Ohio EPA is taking steps to revoke the license of Sebring’s water superintendent, James Bates, whom the group suspects of falsifying reports, according to local network WKBN.

Volunteers also distributed water bottles to residents over the weekend.

“Our primary focus is to distribute this water to pregnant women, infants and children,” said Mahoning Emergency Management Agency Director Dennis O’Hara. “That is our primary focus. We are not going to turn anyone away, but we want to make sure we are hitting our target population that is most at risk according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

[Editor's note: This story and display text have been updated to clarify that the lead has been found in water coming out of some taps as a result of leaching from aging pipes.]

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