Failure at the faucet: Is your water safe?

In the wake of the discovery that notification of high lead levels were delayed in both Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio, NBC4 investigates drinking water rules that almost everyone agrees now need to change.

Arsenic found in government building

At the regional office of the Fairfield County Board of Development Disabilities near Pickerington, the drinking fountains are bagged and bottled water is hauled in.  From bathrooms to kitchens, notices are hung above faucets warning that that the water here is contaminated.

“We have arsenic,” John Pekar says in a matter-of-fact tone.

But there’s nothing ordinary about the discovery of arsenic in the water from the well outside. Since arsenic was discovered at levels twice as high as the EPA standard for safe drinking water on February 23rd last year,  Pekar and the Board have been busy preventing people from drinking it, while trying to come up with a plan to fix the problem.

The answer is simple, yet complicated. The county has helped secure funds from an EPA grant to hook up the building to county water. An expensive water main will soon extend to the building and the homes in the area.

But it will take time.

"Hopefully, it’s within two years,” Pekar says when asked when employees and customers can safely drink the water in the building, adding, “It’s too long.”

Fairfield County Board of Development Disabilities

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EPA rules

That may be, but it’s all within EPA’s rules for dealing with contaminated water.

Under a complex set of EPA rules, water systems, community providers and owners of buildings that are tested have different requirements to inform people about contamination. In some cases, such as e-coli or nitrates, the systems are required to notify immediately, but when it’s lead, that notification can take up 2 months. That means you could be drinking water with unsafe amounts of lead 60 days, even when the system knows there are high amounts of it.

List of contaminants from Ohio EPA:

On the map

And fixing the system to get rid of lead or other contaminations is costly and often takes years.

contaminantsUnder the same rules from the EPA, the provider can spend up to a year and a half to come up with an action plan, spelling out the way it will remove contamination issues.

The Ohio EPA is one of a few states that actually place water advisories on the internet. A searchable map reveals more than eighty places in our state where buildings, neighborhoods and cities are dealing with contaminants in their water.

And the map clearly shows that it takes a long time to fix the issues. In one case, the village of Hamler, Ohio has had an open water advisory about a secondary level of fluoride since 1992.

Changing the rules

Ohio’s EPA Director Craig Butler clearly says his system did not work in Sebring, Ohio, where two employees at a regional office in Twinsburg were placed on administrative leave, following the revelation that it took months to warn people in the village near Youngstown about high levels of lead.

Butler is now pushing for speeding up the process to remove the lead in Sebring, offering bottled water and filtration devices. The director is also pushing to change the rules that allow the contamination to flow, without warning.

"We want to see the federal law changed and we want to be at the head of the class when they start these conversations," Butler said.


Ohio’s bi-partisan bill

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio is outraged over the lack of warning, where faucets in both Flint and Sebring flowed, even though testing showed high levels of lead.

"We all know better than that and to withhold that information, regardless of the law, to hold that information is irresponsible or worse,” Senator Brown said in an interview from the Capitol, adding, “The law needs to be fixed."

Senator Brown and Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman have crossed the aisle, working together to put forward a bill last week to speed up notification and shorten the length of time it takes to get the lead (and copper) out of water systems.

Under their proposal, notifying the public would have to happen in fifteen days, and coming up with a plan to remove the lead would have to be submitted in 6 months, both a dramatic reduction in the time it now takes under the rules.

"It's all about common sense," Brown said.

But the bill only targets lead and, as the Ohio EPA map of open water advisories shows, there are many more contamination issues, including a building that serves the developmentally disabled near Pickerington, where the drinking fountains are bagged because of arsenic.

Senator Brown acknowledged the other contamination issues, but says his bill must focus on lead, adding,”We want to get to arsenic and others, too.”

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