Ohio Seeks Faster Notification of Lead-in-Water Issues

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By Bebe Raupe

March 10 — Public utilities in Ohio should notify their customers within two days, not 30, if sampling shows lead contamination in the water supply, the state's environmental regulator is recommending.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to every water system in the state testing for lead encouraging them to adopt faster procedures for notifying customers if any sample locations show lead levels greater than 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L).

The utility also should notify the local health department of these individual results and provide citizens with information about available health screenings and testing of lead blood levels, the letter said.

In the letters dated March 2, the Ohio EPA said it believes federal regulations “do not match the health consequences of elevated blood levels.”

Concerns surfaced in January when the citizens of Sebring, Ohio, were told of excess lead levels in their drinking water more than six weeks after detection .

An advisory was issued Dec. 3 for the water system in Sebring—but customers weren't notified until Jan. 21—after seven of 20 homes where tap water is routinely tested showed lead levels of 21 parts per billion, more than the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit of 15 parts per billion.

Days after the advisory, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said the Safe Drinking Water Act, as it relates to lead in water, “has a regulatory scheme that does not serve its primary intent of ensuring American's drinking water is safe.”

Calling federal lead rules “not as effective as they should be,” Butler said the 30-day disclosure requirement for water systems to alert homeowners and the 60-day requirement for a systemwide educational program “is clearly too long.”

Lessons Learned

Agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer told Bloomberg BNA March 10 the move reflects “the lessons Ohio EPA learned from Sebring.”

Up to now Ohio’s lead notification regulations have followed the federal rules, she said.

The recommended changes, in accordance with Ohio Revised Code Sections 6109.10 and 6109.12, would ensure the public knows of any water-borne risk in a much timelier fashion, she said.

In a February letter to Ohio congressional representatives, Butler asked them to remedy shortcomings in the Safe Drinking Water Act, noting that when a public water system exceeds a level of 15 parts per billion of lead, federal rules direct it to change its treatment to minimize water corrosivity but not alert citizens.

“That process often takes at least one year to complete and does not sufficiently drive or demand action steps to inform the public,” Butler said. “Based on current regulations, water systems focus first on adjusting their water treatment, and push off community notification to a later day.”

Faster Notification

The letters to the water systems also recommend that they inform the Ohio EPA using the Consumer Notice Verification Form within five days of receiving results.

If a public water system has “action level exceedance,” the Ohio EPA wants it to issue a news release within 24 hours of the determination and inform the county health department by the next day.

The system should distribute written public education materials no later than 30 days from the action level exceedance determination date; this should include health screening information. It also should offer lead testing of water lines to consumers, if requested.

Within five business days, the system should submit verification of these notifications to its Ohio EPA district office, following up by the end of the month by filing Form 5105 with the agency.

While these steps aren't requirements, Griesmer said, the agency is drafting legislation to enact these changes on the state level and hopes to see similar changes on the federal level.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bebe Raupe in Cincinnati at braupe@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The Ohio EPA's letter is available at http://src.bna.com/ddc.

Butler’s letter to Ohio congressional representatives is available at http://src.bna.com/ddf.