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Ohio EPA Terminates Two Employees, Demotes One After Review of Sebring Water Issue
New Expedited Internal Communication Process Implemented
Following an internal administrative review of the village of Sebring water issue, Ohio EPA has terminated employment of two employees in its Central Office and demoted one employee at its Northeast District Office.
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, 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 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. Butler also launched a review of the Ohio EPA’s internal protocols and timelines to determine why it took until Jan. 21, 2016, for him to be notified when these actions might have been taken sooner to protect the citizens of Sebring.
This internal review is now complete and 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 appropriate notice to residents and/or enforcement actions could be taken.
That employee is being terminated for nonperformance. The employee’s supervisor is also being terminated 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 instructed to do so.
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 had the good sense to inform 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 elevating 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 elevated the issue sooner when it became clear that the village wasn’t taking their water review seriously.
As a result of this review, 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 to Ohio’s congressional delegation for improvements to federal lead rules, including challenges with the federal timelines for notification. The Agency is preparing recommendations to the Ohio Legislature to make certain the public’s expectations are met when lead is present in drinking water above federal action levels.
Ohio EPA ordered the village of Sebring on January 21 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.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1972 to consolidate efforts to protect and improve air quality, water quality and waste management in Ohio. Since then, air pollutants dropped by as much as 90 percent; large rivers meeting standards improved from 21 percent to 89 percent; and hundreds of polluting, open dumps were replaced with engineered landfills and an increased emphasis on waste reduction and recycling.