Schools in Ohio town closed for third day over lead contamination

CLEVELAND (Reuters) – Schools in the Ohio village of Sebring were closed for a third day on Tuesday after elevated levels of lead were found in pipes serving some homes and buildings, making it the second Midwestern region to be plagued by tainted water.

Three schools in Sebring, 60 miles northeast of Cleveland, have been shut down since Friday. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hit the village with a violation notice last week requiring it to notify residents of the lead problem, after first warning about risks to pregnant women and children on Dec. 3.

The Sebring news follows weeks of controversy over high lead levels in the water of Flint, Michigan, which has led to calls for the resignation of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

An EPA report on Tuesday found that two samples from Sebring’s McKinley Junior/Senior High School had lead levels above federal standards.

“It has become apparent that our field office was too patient in dealing with the village of Sebring’s ‘cat and mouse’ game,” Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said in a statement on Sunday.

No lead was found at the district’s middle school and athletic building, and lead found in water samples at the elementary school was below the federal allowable level.

Tests of the water plant confirm the village of Sebring’s water treatment plant has no detectable lead. However, water chemistry caused corrosion in piping leading to 28 homes and one school building, the EPA found.

The EPA said that it has reason to believe that Sebring’s water treatment plant operator falsified reports. The agency is requesting assistance from U.S. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division.

The Ohio EPA has required continual water testing, bottled water distribution and filtration systems provided to homes where results are above the federal allowable level. The advisory will remain in place for a minimum of a year.

Village officials for Sebring were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage brains and cause other health problems.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Matthew Lewis)

Special prosecutor appointed to investigate Flint water crisis

(Reuters) – Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Monday named a special prosecutor and investigator to look into possible crimes in the city of Flint’s water crisis.

Todd Flood, a former prosecutor for Detroit’s Wayne County, and retired Detroit FBI head Andrew Arena will conduct the independent investigation into the lead contamination in Flint after water supplies were switched to save money, Schuette said.

Governor Rick Snyder apologized last week for the delay in addressing Flint’s problems, which have become a national scandal. Residents of the city of 100,000 people had complained for months about discolored water, but officials moved slowly to address the problem.

“Without fear and without favor, this independent investigation will be high-performance and let the chips fall where they may,” Schuette told reporters at a news conference.

State Representative LaTanya Garrett, a Democrat from Detroit, filed a petition with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to remove Schuette and his team from the investigation, citing conflicts of interest. Schuette and Snyder are Republicans.

Schuette pledged the investigation would be independent and said an ethics lawyer would watch out for conflicts.

He gave no timeline for the probe, saying it could take a long time to get all the facts necessary.

Schuette said it was an outrage that people in Flint are billed for water they cannot drink and that he was looking for ways to get people relief from payments.

He said he decided earlier this year that the probe was needed, after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted errors in Flint water treatment.

Dan Wyant, the head of Michigan’s DEQ, resigned in December. Last week Susan Hedman, the regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also stepped down due to the Flint water problem.

In recent years, financially troubled Flint has been governed by a series of state-appointed emergency managers. A booming car industry town in the first half of the 20th century, the city has been in decline ever since.

In 2014, Flint began using river water, which was more corrosive than its previous supply and caused more lead to leach from its aging pipes.

This in turn led to elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and cause other health problems, in some drinking water and in some children.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against city and state officials.

(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)