SEBRING, OHIO — On Friday morning, Pastor Bill Coker Jr. filled his car with bottled water and drove more than 100 miles from his church in Powhatan Point, Ohio, to the lead-contaminated town of Sebring.
Later that afternoon, after he finished unloading the water into a sun-filled room at the evangelical Sebring Church of the Nazarene, Coker explained his motivation for making the trip.
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
“The church is supposed to care for every part of you, not just your spiritual needs,” he said. “If a person is starving, you give them food. If they’re thirsty, you give them water.”
There are thirsty people in Sebring. Back in January, the small town’s population of 4,420 was informed of excessive levels of lead in their public water system. Similar to the much-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan, there’s evidence that officials at the state’s Environmental Protection Agency branch and the local public water system knew of Sebring’s contamination months beforehand. And, just like in Flint, two EPA officials were fired over their failure to make sure residents were aware of the danger.
But Sebring’s similarities to Flint don’t extend much further. Unlike the large, heavily minority, and disproportionately poor population of Flint, Sebring is small, mostly white, and has a poverty rate proportionate to the state’s average. And most importantly, its lead contamination seems much easier to fix. While both cities’ water woes were caused by lead leeching from pipes, Sebring was able to mostly solve its problem by adding sodium hydroxide to the water supply.
They key word there, however, is mostly. In early March, the Ohio EPA found that 43 of 1,077 Sebring water samples had excessive lead levels. And in the community, there is still distrust over whether the water really is safe to drink, even if the EPA gives the all-clear.
That is why the Sebring Church of the Nazarene continues to give out bottled water, baby wipes, and cleaning supplies every evening from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to anyone who asks for it, Pastor Mike Kimball told ThinkProgress. He does not require proof of contamination.
“People want to give ID, proof that they need the water — we just give it to you,” Kimball said. “I hope they’re being honest, but that’s between them and God.”
The Church of the Nazarene is one of the only places in Sebring where people can get free water without question, Kimball said. The Sebring Community Center gives out free bottled water only to households that can show their water has tested above the allowable limit for lead. Sebring residents who want water from the community center must show proof of residence and proof of contamination, and can only receive the equivalent of one gallon per person per day.
Beth Harris, a volunteer at the Sebring Nazarene church, empathizes with people who who want water but may not have proof of contamination.
“They’re still afraid, and I don’t blame them,” she said. “That’s why we don’t ask. If you need it, come and get it.”
Now, Kimball estimates his church is giving water to about six to eight families per night. They usually give out about two cases of bottled water and a couple of individual gallons. And it’s not costing the church a dime, he said — all of the water has come via donations from concerned residents and other Nazarene churches, like the one in Powhatan Point that Bill Coker traveled from that day.
CREDIT: Emily Atkin
“I believe the Lord has given to us to give to others,” Kimball said.
In Sebring, it seems help is in no short supply. At one point on Friday afternoon, three young girls walked in and asked if there was anything they could do to help with water distribution. Harris thanked them and told them to come back at 6 p.m.
And at the local high school down the street, Sebring Local School District treasurer Thomas Morehouse told ThinkProgress that, since the crisis was announced in January, they’ve been inundated with donations from people who want to make sure the the school’s 645 kids don’t come in contact with lead-contaminated water.
“We have more water than we even know what to do with,” he said. “The situation is definitely not as bad as it could have been.”
Inevitably, as Flint’s lead contamination crisis dominates national headlines and as a presidential election is underway, Sebring’s water contamination has raised broader questions. Is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running for president, doing enough to make sure dangerous drinking water is addressed in his own state? Are Sebring’s residents going to vote for him in the wake of their water woes? Or will they vote for the Democratic candidates, who have both been outspoken about the dangers of lead contamination?
Pastor Kimball, for his part, steered clear of the potential political implications.
“The one thing I always make sure to do is that stay out of that,” he said.