Residents, businesses and institutions across a broad swath of Southwest Baltimore and Baltimore County started using their tap water again Thursday, after city officials lifted a boil water advisory Wednesday night.
When Ginny Kearns, a partner at Shuffles Bar & Grill in Arbutus, heard that the boil water advisory was lifted for her area Wednesday night, she felt relieved. Of course, she said, she would have felt better if she hadn’t been left with copious bags of ice and cases of sodas she bought to get her business through the water crisis.
“When I carried in the last bag of ice, I was like ‘This better end soon,’” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t think it would end this soon.”
While officials Wednesday night significantly reduced the area of the boil water advisory issued on Labor Day due to E. coli contamination, the Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, in addition to neighborhoods to their east, north and west, remained under it.
On Thursday, cars wrapped around the block at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School as residents waited to get bottled water to use at home. Many also walked to the water distribution site.
City officials said residents were limited to 3 gallons each, something that frustrated many residents who were picking up water for large households and for older relatives.
”Give us as many as we need,” said 64-year-old D Knight, who lives across North Calhoun Street from the school. “It’s about saving our life.”
But for those south and southwest of Route 40 — including in Baltimore County — who use city water and were covered by the precautionary boil water advisory, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said Wednesday night that they no longer needed to boil their water before consuming it.
No drinking water samples in that area ever showed positive test results for E. coli, Scott said. As a result, city officials received clearance from the state Department of the Environment to drop the precautionary boil water advisory for some areas Wednesday night.
“The reason there is a partial lifting and not a full lifting is that DPW is awaiting analytical data from the laboratory to confirm that there is no E. coli in the samples taken within the required boil water advisory,” Scott said.
As a result of the inconveniences posed by the boil water advisory this week, Scott said the next round of water bills will be reduced 25% citywide.
“This decision was made as a result of the inconvenience, but also the increased water usage that will be required to flush the system for those who may have been unable to utilize water services over the past few days,” Scott said.
Residents in the area where the advisory was lifted were asked to flush out their pipes before resuming their consumption of the water, by running all faucets for 15 minutes on cold, Public Works Director Jason Mitchell said.
“You want to start at the lower end of your home, go up to the higher end, and flush your entire system,” Mitchell said. “We’d also like you to flush all of the ice within your refrigerators and also your water lines within your refrigerators.”
All ice produced since the water advisory was put into effect should be thrown away, along with the next three batches, Scott said in a news release. Ice makers should be wiped clean with a solution of 2 tablespoons of bleach to a gallon of water.
First thing Thursday morning, Kearns and her staff flushed out Shuffles’ taps for 15 minutes, she said, eager to start serving fountain drinks and water once more.
The eight 40-pound bags of ice at Shuffles, alongside the cases of Sprite, ginger ale and cranberry juice, are just a reminder of the extra money that had to be spent to deal with an emergency situation. But, Kearns said, “it is what it is.”
After hearing about the lifting of the advisory, Ernie Bailey, president of the Lansdowne Improvement Association, said he ran his faucets and cleaned out the ice from his freezer.
Overall, he was pleased with how the water contamination was handled, as plenty of bottled water was on hand at the local library.
“By the time people were getting water for two days, it was lifted that fast,” he said.
But Bailey said he first heard about the boil water advisory from other residents, mainly retirees who heard about the problem from the news media while Bailey was busy at work.
“I was getting a lot of calls from people in the community asking me [about it],” Bailey said. “And I couldn’t really answer the questions because I didn’t know right away.”
The city’s initial communication about the contamination frustrated elected officials, advocates and residents. City officials first learned of a positive E. coli test in the drinking water at a fire station in West Baltimore on Saturday, but conducted additional testing to confirm the result, and didn’t receive confirmation until Sunday.
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The city’s Department of Public Works sent out a tweet about the results Monday morning, but didn’t initially explain the geographic area where residents should boil water before consuming it. About 12 hours elapsed before a clear map was released, and Scott later held a news conference.
Scott defended the delays Wednesday night, saying that even after confirming the result the city had to go through a process with state regulators before announcing the boil water advisory.
Meanwhile, city workers continue to seek the source of the E. coli contamination.
In addition to testing at 90 sites inside Baltimore City and Baltimore County, sampling for E. coli was conducted Wednesday at six locations along a 30-inch water main from Ashburton “suspected as a possible source,” according to a timeline the mayor posted to Twitter on Wednesday.
“As an abundance of caution, we’re looking at a few more test sites just to make sure we do our due diligence,” Mitchell said at Wednesday evening’s news conference. “We’re testing the entire distribution system that gets into that area. This is just another spot in our system where we want to get more results and more data.”
In response to a question about what sampling revealed about the amount of bacteria present in the water, officials said Wednesday that the tests for E. coli were binary, showing either positive or negative results.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.