Lead, other contaminants taint water in Ohio communities

'They never said anything'

Jessica Callison says when she moved into the Voyager Village Mobile Home Park two years ago, no one told her not to let her 6-year-old son drink the water.

High fluoride levels have put the park of several hundred residents near New Lebanon under a water quality advisory since 2006, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Per the advisory: “Children under nine should be provided with alternative sources of drinking water or water that has been treated to remove fluoride.”

Callison and other residents say park managers have told them nothing about the fluoride problem, though park officials say they have done everything the state requires.

“They never said anything,” Callison said. “I think they should be telling us, especially with all the issues that Michigan is having.”

A public health catastrophe over lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan — and a similar but smaller issue in the northern Ohio village of Sebring — has state and federal officials rushing to address lead poisoning and toughen requirements that communities are made aware of lead in their water.

“No parent should ever have to worry if the water coming out of their faucets may be poisoning their children,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, last week in proposing a bill to require officials to notify the public within weeks if lead is found in a water supply, and take faster action to fix it.

Brown’s bill would address the 16 public water systems in Ohio under lead advisories. But another 69 systems in the state are contaminated with dangerous levels of fluoride, arsenic, bacteria or possibly cancer-causing disinfectant byproducts.

“I’m very willing to look at other approaches,” Brown said when asked about other contaminants. “That’s why we need an aggressive EPA and we need a legislature that cares about looking into these kinds of issues.”

Fluoride common

The Ohio EPA requires water systems to notify the public of contamination or water quality testing violations. Highly dangerous contaminants such as nitrates or bacteria require public notification within 24 hours. Contaminants such as fluoride, which can cause long-term problems, require notification ranging from 30 days to once a year, usually in annual reports that water systems must send to their customers.

“Not all contaminants are equal, so the public notification requirements need to reflect the degree of risk from individual contaminants,” said Michael Baker, Ohio EPA’s division chief for drinking and ground waters.

The most common contaminant in Ohio’s public water systems is fluoride, which plagues 28 water systems across the state, including the village of Bowersville in Greene County. It’s added to many water systems to improve the public’s dental health. But it also occurs naturally, and gets into the water supply from discharge from fertilizer and aluminum factories.

Too much of it — especially for children — can damage teeth.

Following U.S. EPA guidelines, the Ohio EPA considers any system with fewer than 4 milligrams of fluoride per liter to be safe for the general public and doesn’t require the system to lower it. But if it has more than 2 milligrams per liter, it is required to inform its customers annually that it poses a danger to young children with developing teeth.

Voyager Village has been under a drinking water advisory for fluoride since 2006. The last time it was reported to the Ohio EPA, in June 2015, the water contained 2.63 milligrams per liter.

Kim McCullah said he has lived at Voyager Village for five years and never received any information about the water quality.

“I would love to get a yearly report,” he said.

Just then his 4-year-old great-niece Adelin, who has a 1-year-old brother, piped up: “I drink water, and milk and juice.”

Voyager’s response

Tim Tehan, the person listed in state records as responsible for the Voyager Village system, said in an interview last week that the mobile home residents have been notified of the fluoride issue. But he would not say exactly how he notified them.

“There is no issue with the fluoride,” he said. “They have been notified the way the Ohio EPA stipulates we do that.”

When pressed about how exactly he told the public he hung up the phone.

Ohio EPA officials said the minimum public outreach requirements for water advisories involve sending notice to residents once a year. The systems have to legally certify to the state when they do so.

Simply posting the notice in a mobile home office — as state officials said a Mercer County mobile home park did after lead was found in its water in October — is not sufficient.

Public water advisories in Ohio are in effect for several types of water systems, including 17 small villages and cities, 11 mobile home parks and 10 schools.

“When somebody has a violation, we work with them to try to get them to return to compliance as soon as possible on a cooperative assistance basis,” Baker said. “If they fail to do that in a reasonable amount of time, or they have repeated violations, then we start to take enforcement action against the system.”

The Ohio EPA has taken legal action against several public water systems in the last year over water quality and quantity issues, including two mobile home parks in Montgomery County.

Last week a Montgomery County judge ordered the owner of the Pineview Mobile Home Park in Miami Twp. to provide bottled water to the park’s roughly 400 residents and take steps to repair the system that has routinely malfunctioned for months.

This followed legal action taken against park owner Timothy Dearwester by the Ohio Attorney General at the Ohio EPA’s request. State records show that action came after more than a year of the Ohio EPA telling Dearwester that the water system was poorly maintained, and not properly treated or tested for contamination.

‘It’s on and off’

Tuesday afternoon, children poured out of a Miamisburg city school bus when it stopped on the narrow road in the middle of the mobile home park.

Marcus Mitchell has three children — ages 11, 3 and 4 months — and has lived at the park with their mother for three years. He said boil advisories and outages are frequent. When the water runs, he fills up a large jug to have on hand when the faucets stop.

“It’s on and off,” he said. “You might not get a shower for two days.”

Residents said the water situation has gotten better since the state stepped in, though there were reports of another outage Wednesday.

Reached Thursday, Dearwester declined to comment. A woman at the park’s office who didn’t identify herself said only she had “nothing to do with it.”

In December, the state sued the owner of the Catalpa Grove Mobile Home Park on Wolf Creek Pike in Dayton for failing to conduct required tests for contaminants such as lead, copper and bacteria, and for allegedly not informing the park’s 26 residents of monitoring violations dating back to 2011.

As of last week, the court was unable to serve park owner Mary Talbert with the lawsuit, according to court records.

Dangerous wells

Most area residents get their water from public water systems that routinely test for contaminants and find them well under allowable limits. But there is no requirement for testing the thousands of aging private wells across the region. Health officials estimate there are 10,000 private wells in Montgomery County alone.

Water departments and health departments will test residents’ water on request. They charge a fee, depending on the type of contaminant testing.

Nearly a third of the 137 homes tested last year for bacteria by Montgomery County Environmental Services tested positive, and 16 percent of 81 homes tested for arsenic were over the action level.

Greene County Public Health had similar numbers for bacteria in 118 homes it tested. It also found lead over the federal limit in 38 percent of the 34 properties tested.

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