Ohio EPA fires 2 after Sebring water issue

Posted at 5:52 PM, Feb 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-17 17:52:44-05

Following an internal administrative review of the village of Sebring's water issue, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency fired two employees and demoted one other, according to the Ohio EPA.

The Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler learned on Jan. 21 that Sebring had failed to properly notify its customers of lead levels in certain homes and repeatedly failed to provide timely and accurate information to the Agency's field office.

The Ohio EPA issued a notice of violation to the village on Jan. 21, requiring that it take corrective action and notify its customers immediately. The Ohio EPA also issued emergency orders prohibiting James Bates, the village's water treatment plant operator, from operating any public water system in Ohio and revoked his license. 

Butler also launched a review of the Ohio EPA's internal protocols and timelines to determine why it took until Jan. 21 for him to be notified when action could've possibly been taken sooner to protect Sebring residents. 

According to the Ohio EPA, the internal review was completed and revealed an Ohio EPA Central Office employee responsible for sending laboratory results from the Central Office failed to make sure the data was provided to the field office to help them conduct their review. The Ohio EPA said this was a critical step to help field staff determine if lead action-level exceedance had occurred so appropriate notices to residents or enforcement actions could be put into place.

That employee was fired for nonperformance, the Ohio EPA reported. The employee's supervisor was also fired for not properly managing an employee who had an existing record of performance issues and not providing appropriate corrective counseling or progressive discipline, despite being told to do so. 

The Ohio EPA said despite the shortcomings of the employee, the EPA's Northeast District Office knew to inform the village of an apparent action-level exceedance on Dec. 3, 2015. 

Also, a manager in the Northeast District Office was demoted for not elevating the Sebring issue to management or the Agency's director when the district informed the village, the Ohio EPA said. The Agency said the employee should've elevated the issue sooner when it became clear the village wasn't taking the water review seriously. 

The Ohio EPA said this incident resulted in the Agency making revisions to its operating procedures involving lead in drinking water to ensure the failure is not repeated. A new process was also established to provide staff with a direct and expedited communication route to senior Ohio EPA officials of events or situations with possible significant environmental or public health consequences that are not being addressed.

Recommendations from the Agency were sent to Ohio's congressional delegation for improvements to federal lead rules. The Ohio EPA is preparing recommendations to the Ohio Legislature as well to make sure the public's expectations regarding lead in drinking water are met. 

The Ohio EPA ordered the village of Sebring to offer free water testing for any homeowner who requested it. The village is expected to make those results public as they are received. 

Of nearly 900 samples the Ohio EPA has received, the Agency said only 40 were above the federal allowable limit for lead.