Ex-Sebring water supt. convicted of reduced charge, avoids prison

By Ed Runyan



James Bates, 62, former Sebring water superintendent, pleaded no contest and was found guilty Friday of one count of sending notifications to Sebring water customers seven weeks late in 2015 to tell them there were high lead levels in their drinking water.

It results in Bates, of Carey Road in Salem, having a misdemeanor criminal conviction but headed off a trial scheduled to start Monday in Mahoning County Sebring Area Court. He was facing three counts, but prosecutors dropped two in exchange for his plea.

If convicted of all three, he could have gotten up to 12 years in prison.

Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove honored Bates’ plea agreement, giving him no jail or prison time, but ordering him to serve two years’ probation, pay a $500 fine and court costs and perform 200 hours of community service.

Bates’ probation can be cut short if he pays the fine and meets the other terms.

The judge initially said she believed Bates’ license to serve as an Ohio public water system operator would be revoked, but Bates and his attorney, John Juhasz, clarified that Bates is appealing the removal of his license, which took place in January 2016.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said Bates failed to send notices after learning in August and September 2015 of high lead levels, which were found in routine water testing done at customers’ homes.

The dismissed counts said notifications should have gone out in late September to 20 homeowners and late October for an additional 10 homes because of the high lead levels. The count Bates pleaded guilty to said he should have notified all of the Sebring water system customers by late November 2015.

Documents show that Bates and others delivered the notices Jan. 22, 2016.

Before sentencing, Ken Egbert, assistant attorney general, said Bates’ crime did not cause “substantial health risks” for Sebring water customers who drank Sebring water in late 2015 and early 2016.

Egbert said testing done by the Mahoning County Board of Health provided that assurance.

Egbert briefly discussed the facts of the case before sentencing, saying Bates worked as Sebring water superintendent more than 20 years but was placed on administrative leave in January 2016 because of the notification problem.

He said Ohio Environmental Protection Agency employee Chris Maslo told Bates to notify the public of the high lead levels and gave Bates an internet link to documents that would show him how to do it.

Juhasz said he does not contest those facts, but he advised Judge Cosgrove that Bates doesn’t believe that accurately describes what happened.

Bates told The Vindicator outside of the hearing that he didn’t send the notices because Maslo told him in early October 2015 not to send them until OEPA “paperwork” arrived.

Nothing more was said about it until Dec. 4, after his deadline to send the notices had passed, Bates said. He relied on Maslo’s advice because he had never done a public notification before, Bates said.

Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia and damage to the kidneys and brain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It is especially dangerous for developing and unborn babies. Even low-level exposures in developing babies has been found to affect behavior and intelligence, the CDC says.