SEBRING, Ohio – In a furor with echoes of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, parents in and around Sebring no longer trust the water coming out of their taps — or the explanations from community leaders — after learning just days ago that high levels of lead were detected in some homes over the summer.
Residents in the rural area of about 8,100 people near the Rust Belt city of Youngstown are demanding to know why they were kept in the dark for months. Children are being tested for lead poisoning. Schools have been closed for three straight days. Bottled water is being passed out. And state regulators are calling for a criminal investigation of the water plant manager.
"How long has this been going on and how much did we drink it?" Nina McIlvain asked Tuesday as she loaded bottled water into her car. "I'm sure there's more to it than we know."
Over the summer, seven of 20 homes where the water is routinely tested showed excessive levels of lead. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the manager of the small water system that supplies Sebring and two other villages failed to notify the public within the required 60 days and submitted "misleading, inaccurate or false reports."
Plant manager James Bates denied he falsified reports, calling the allegations an "outright lie."
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the state EPA accused Bates in 2009 of repeatedly violating state rules over the previous several years and operating the plant in a manner that endangered public health. The records, unrelated to the recent lead testing, say he attempted to ignore poor water readings and submitted misleading, inaccurate or false reports.
Village Manager Richard Giroux maintained on Tuesday that he was not aware of the elevated lead results until last week. But a letter released by the Ohio EPA showed that he was told in December.
Anger and frustration have been boiling over since Thursday, when the village warned that children and pregnant women shouldn't drink the tap water. A standing-room-only crowd filled a council meeting Monday night, demanding answers and action.
The mayor told one mother whose son showed elevated lead levels that it was too early to blame the water entirely, prompting a chorus of jeers.
"They need to fix the problem," Tonya Ludt said while picking up water Tuesday. "Forget about the finger-pointing and blaming. Fix it."
Classes were called off after tests showed that two drinking fountains at separate schools in Sebring had lead levels that exceeded EPA standards. School officials said they have shut off the drinking fountains and classes will resume Wednesday.
Lead can cause learning disabilities and behavior problems in children. Many researchers say that no amount is safe for youngsters.
State regulators said they believe the contamination was triggered by water that for some reason had become too corrosive and caused lead pipes leading into homes to leach heavy metal into the drinking water. Regulators asked the water plant to treat the water to reduce its corrosiveness.
The most recent round of testing at the homes that had elevated lead over the summer showed that only one had detectable levels, said Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer.
"That tells us what the village is doing to treat the water is starting to work," she said.
In Flint, high blood levels of lead have been found in children in the mostly poor, black Rust Belt city of 100,000, where the crisis has led to allegations of environmental racism. The contamination has been blamed on a switchover to corrosive river water and a failure to use a chemical additive that prevents pipes from releasing lead.
Mark Hughes, who owns a diner and three rental homes in Sebring, a predominantly white, middle-class community of mostly older, neatly kept homes, said the village has a moral obligation to tell people what's going on with their water.
"I want all my residences and restaurants tested so we know where we stand," he said.