TOLEDO, Ohio — Ohio’s environmental regulators are proposing an overhaul of how the state and its cities deal with lead in drinking water, including speeding up notifications when lead is found at the tap.
The plan announced Thursday would give city water systems just two days to alert residents when lead levels are above federal limits.
Current federal rules call for homeowners where the individual tests are done to be told within 30 days and notices for all other residents within 60 days when the entire system exceeds the lead limits.
“We say that is too long for people not to know,” said Craig Butler, director of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposal from Gov. John Kasich’s administration also includes a plan to help cities map out and remove lead pipes, and to work with schools on replacing drinking fountains and faucets that have lead parts.
Lead is especially dangerous to young children and can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Cities also could apply for already existing funding to add corrosion controls to prevent pipes from leaching lead into water.
The changes have been in the works since January, after elevated lead levels were detected in drinking water in the northeastern Ohio village of Sebring.
It became apparent, Butler said, that federal rules for testing lead and notifying residents were falling short of the public’s expectations when it comes to safe drinking water.
In a letter sent to Ohio’s congressional delegation in February, he said there needs to be a re-evaluation of testing methods set by the federal EPA office.
The U.S. agency has said it is reviewing the federal lead rule, but it could be another year or more before changes are made.
Butler said he didn’t want to wait that long, calling the proposal by Kasich, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, a short-term solution that will address immediate needs to make sure the public is aware when lead is in the water.
Several members of Congress have called for changes in the notification process following the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, has proposed legislation that speeds up notification and the response communities must take.
Democrats, including Brown, have criticized the state’s EPA handling of the lead contamination in Sebring, saying the agency should have stepped in much sooner when it first realized the village had not told residents.
State officials have said the operator of Sebring’s water plant waited months to notify people about high lead readings. The Ohio EPA also fired two employees following an internal investigation into why it took months for the agency’s top administrators to find out about the problem.
The new proposal from the state would require the Ohio EPA to step in and alert residents if local authorities wait too long.
It also would force labs that test drinking water to complete their work and give the results to public water systems within 30 days, speeding up the process by months in some cases.