Ohio EPA fires two employees, demotes one after Sebring crisis

Ohio EPA fires two employees, demotes one after Sebring crisis

SEBRING, OH (WOIO) - Fallout from the village of Sebring's water issue continues. Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency fired of two employees in its Central Office and handed out one demotion at its Northeast District Office

Wednesday's terminations are a result of an internal administrative review.

After 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,  a notice of violation was issued to the village requiring it take corrective action and notify its customers immediately.

The Agency 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. A review of the Ohio EPA's internal protocols and timelines was then launched to determine why it took until Jan. 21, 2016, for Butler to be notified when these actions might have been taken sooner to protect Sebring residents.

This internal review concludes that an Ohio EPA Central Office employee responsible for sending laboratory results from the Central Office failed to ensure that data was provided to the field office to help them conduct their review. This is a critical step to help field staff determine if a lead action-level exceedance has occurred so that residents are notified and enforcement actions could be taken.

Officials say the employee is being terminated for nonperformance. The employee's supervisor is also being let go for not properly managing an employee who had an existing record of performance issues.

Despite not having received all the necessary data and information and the employee's failure to provide timely data to the field office, the EPA's Northeast District Office informed the village of an apparent action-level exceedance on Dec. 3.

In addition, a manager in the Northeast District Office will be demoted for not giving the Sebring issue to management or the Agency's director when the district informed the village on Dec. 3, 2015. In fact, the employee should have let someone know sooner when it became clear that the village wasn't taking their water review seriously.

As a result of the Sebring water crisis, Ohio EPA has made revisions to its operating procedures involving lead in drinking water to ensue this failure is not repeated. And, the Agency has established a new process to provide staff with a direct and expedited communication route to senior Ohio EPA officials of events or situations that are not being addressed that have possible significant environmental and public health consequences.

The Agency has sent recommendations for improvements to federal lead rules, including challenges with the federal timelines for notification. The Agency is preparing recommendations to Ohio lawmakers to make sure the public's expectations are met when lead is present in drinking water above federal action levels.

Last month the Ohio EPA ordered the village of Sebring to offer free water testing for any homeowner who asked and will make those results public as they are received. Of the nearly 900 samples Ohio EPA has received, only 40 have been above the federally allowable limit. Ohio EPA has followed up on some of the high readings and has found that the water coming into the home is healthy and running the tap for several minutes successfully eliminates any detectable lead in the water.

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