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Sebring, Ohio, had lead in its water and didn’t tell residents for months

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

At Thursday's Republican debate, moderators gave Ohio Gov. John Kasich a chance to rebuke Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for his handling of the Flint water crisis. And Kasich did so — rather gently.

"Every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that," Kasich said, when asked how he would have handled the situation.

"When you see a problem, you must act quickly to get on top of it and people at home are saying they've got a problem. Listen to them. Because most of the time they're absolutely correct."

Snyder's administration downplayed concerns from Flint residents and even a local medical center for more than a year before outside experts revealed that the city's water was full of lead.

But although you wouldn't know it from Kasich's answer, the situation isn't a hypothetical for him. A lead crisis actually is unfolding in Sebring, Ohio, which said this week that its water was unsafe for children and pregnant women to drink.

And while Ohio's response hasn't been as disastrous as Michigan's, the state didn't act quickly. Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency knew for months about lead levels — and didn't force the water treatment plant to notify residents.

The Ohio EPA admitted it should have pushed Sebring harder

Tests in Sebring, a town of 4,300 people located about an hour from Cleveland, revealed lead in the water in some homes in summer 2015.

Lead poisoning can cause serious damage to children by slowing their brain development and making them more hyperactive and impulsive.

But the town didn't notify residents in the tested homes about the unsafe water until December, and didn't issue a general public notification until January 21, when the state Environmental Protection Agency finally took action, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

The EPA had been pushing the local water treatment plant to notify residents since fall and gave it a November deadline to do so. It has said the director of the local water treatment plant gave the agency incomplete or falsified data.

A state EPA spokesperson said the agency was "too lenient" in not enforcing the deadline, according to the Dispatch.

As recently as Sunday, two schools in the town had lead in their drinking fountains. Schools in the town are closed, and the state is offering free bottled water — a gallon per person per day — to residents whose homes were affected.

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