State suspends Sebring water superintendent’s license

The Ohio EPA is taking steps to revoke Bates' license and has opened a criminal investigation against him.
File photo of James Bates from March 19, 2014 from an unrelated interview.

SEBRING, Ohio (WYTV) – Sebring Water Superintendent Jim Bates is officially suspended Monday afternoon, after test results showing elevated levels of lead in the village’s water system went public last week.

The state EPA suspended Bates’ operator’s license Monday morning, and Village Manager Richard Giroux then placed him on administrative leave.

First News spoke to Bates about 10:30 this morning, and he told us he was still on the job at that point. The news of his suspension came down just before noon.

As WKBN reported yesterday, the EPA claimed it had reason to suspect Bates falsified reports and that it was opening a criminal investigation against him.

Bates said he would withhold further comment until getting more legal assistance.

In the meantime, the state has granted permission to the village water plant’s second-in-command, Christopher Harshman, to run the plant.

Sebring failed to properly notify customers about the lead levels and provide timely, accurate information, according to a release from the Ohio EPA.

Ohio EPA director Craig Butler issued a notice of violation to the village on January 21st, requiring that customers be notified immediately.

Letters from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to the Village of Sebring show problems with lead in the village’s water supply, dating back to at least November.

Sebring water customers — which include approximately 8,100 residents in Sebring, Beloit, Maple Ridge and parts of Smith Township — weren’t officially notified by the village until Thursday, however. It was then the village issued an advisory, urging pregnant women and children to avoid drinking the water and others to flush it before using it.

The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to lead in pregnant women and young children could create health problems. Those health problems can include reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth in pregnant women and behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia in children.

Photos: Timeline of Sebring’s lead levels

“The games the Village of Sebring was playing by giving us incomplete data time and time again, and not submitting the required documents, made it difficult for our field office to determine whether or not they had notified their customers,” said Heidi Griesmer, an Ohio EPA representative.

Water samples were taken from 28 homes. Three of those remain above the federal allowable level, according to the release.

The drinking water advisory cannot be lifted until the EPA receives two rounds of successful sampling events in consecutive six-month periods.

The EPA says the Village is legally obligated to develop a plan to prevent lead from leeching into the water from residential piping, and to communicate to the public regularly about any risks and what their homes’ test results are. Sebring will have to provide individual tests upon request by residents, as well.

The release says that the Village is also required to continue testing the water, provide bottled water and filtration systems, and work with the county to provide health screenings.

The Ohio EPA says it will provide up to $25,000 to assist the village in providing the filtration systems.

EPA letters to Sebring

The release says that out of 15 water samples from the schools, only one water fountain from McKinley Junior and Senior High School had a higher than allowable level of lead.

State Senator Joe Schiavoni and Representative John Boccieri say the people of Sebring should be the main focus because their health is important.

Schiavoni says those responsible need to be held accountable for their actions.

“The Ohio EPA needs to worry about helping people today, rather than pointing fingers on blame…Why did they pick Friday at 10:00 to have a conference call?”

EPA takes additional samples from Sebring Jr/High School.
Additional water samples taken from McKinley Junior and Senior High School on Sunday night.

Boccieri also points out communication is few and far between.

“In a country as great as ours, is it remarkable we’re even having this discussion? In the 21st century? That we have great need in this nation and we have a lack of response from federal level to the state to make sure we have appropriate services for our people,” Boccieri said.

Additional tests will be conducted Sunday night at McKinley Junior and Senior High and BL Elementary Schools. The superintendent has cancelled classes for Monday.

West Branch Middle and High Schools, along with the preschool, are also closed Monday because their water is supplied by Sebring. The elementary schools will remain open because they have well water.

The release also states that separate tests confirm Sebring’s water treatment plant has no detectable lead.

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