Rep. Boccieri: Sebring And Warren Demonstrate Failures Of Public Notification On Lead
Lawmaker says both EPA and local water authority notification processes need improvements

In the wake of Sunday's Vindicator article illustrating epic failures by the State of Ohio's enforcement arm for public notification during crises of drinking water contamination, State Rep. John Boccieri (D-Poland) called for full reform of the whole process.  

Documents recently released by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that the agency failed in its attempts to get local officials in Warren to properly notify the media during a 2008 public health crisis in the city.

Boccieri, who represents Sebring, helped pass the new law signed by Governor Kasich requiring a two-day public notification timeline for local water authorities. The lawmaker offered several amendments to the bill, HB 512, one of which would have created a quick and coordinated interagency response plan in cases of lead contamination. He urged that such an effort would be critical to effective and timely notification of the public.

“The reports from Sebring and Warren both show a failure of notification,” Rep. Boccieri said. “Ohio’s current law creates a somewhat illogical process where local water authorities - who are responsible for treating water, not handling public health crises - must notify the community when high levels of lead are discovered.”

Instead, Boccieri’s idea would provide local officials with vital support from local boards of health when higher than normal levels of lead are detected. Both the Emergency Management Association of Ohio and the Ohio Health Boards Association endorsed this proposal.

“What we’ve seen in Sebring, Warren and other communities is a situation in which local water authorities are waiting for the EPA to direct them on how to respond. Waiting for instruction or enforcement isn’t a solid process - it creates a crisis within the crisis,” he added. 

Rep. Boccieri believes a better approach is to have local boards of health and EMA directors within the county assist water authorities in preparing a pre-scripted plan to execute during a public health crisis. 

“In the military, we manage a crisis action checklist instead of allowing the circumstances of the crisis to drive us through a reactive response that puts everything off track.”

Under current law, the Ohio EPA shares a legal and moral responsibility for timely notification of the public in cases of lead contamination with local water authority operators. However, the code currently only attaches civil and criminal penalties to local water operators’ violation of this law, but not state officials.   

“I can almost guarantee if the EPA director and state officials were facing civil and criminal penalties for a lack of timely notification there would be different outcomes,” Rep. Boccieri concluded.

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