Baltimore’s supply of a chemical needed to treat the city’s drinking water became dangerously low earlier this year as a result of a dispute between the city and a vendor, putting the city’s drinking water at risk of being undrinkable, according to a report released Tuesday by the city’s inspector general.
According to the report, an unnamed vendor threatened to halt deliveries of the unspecified water treatment chemical to the city in June due to a disagreement about a proposed price increase. At the time, Baltimore owed more than $77,000 to the company in unpaid invoices, according to the report.
No city water went untreated as a result, but treatment chemical deliveries were disrupted for about two weeks, causing supplies at the city’s Montebello Plants I and II to become “critically low,” according to the report. The chemical is needed to prevent corrosive water from dissolving lead and copper from water mains and home plumbing, the report states.
“If the water treatment chemical supply had been exhausted, the OIG learned an emergency health crisis would have ensued for city residents,” Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming wrote.
Lime, or calcium carbonate, which is made from limestone, is used in treating drinking water to reduce water’s acidity, which can cause it dissolve metals such as lead and copper used in older water pipes.
A different chemical, chlorine, is used to treat the water to prevent bacterial contamination like the one involving E. Coli that briefly contaminated West Baltimore’s drinking water over Labor Day weekend.
The dispute between the vendor, which is unnamed in the report, and the city dates back to November 2021, the report states. That’s when the vendor emailed the city’s purchasing agent and requested a price increase of $10.89 per unit. The city’s purchasing agent said it did not recall receiving that email, according to the report.
Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a contract extension with the company at the current price in December 2021 upon recommendation from the Department of Public Works and the Bureau of Procurement.
Also in December, the vendor began submitting invoices to the city at the escalated price. The city paid the vendor at the higher rate in error through March before halting payments, the inspector general found.
In June, the vendor told city officials that “timely payment” was required to avoid shipping delays. On June 8, a Public Works supervisor requested a payment to the vendor, noting that Montebello Plant I would run out of the chemical without a delivery on June 10, according to the report. The vendor agreed to deliver the chemical, but said a payment of at least $43,834 had to be received by June 13.
A water system treatment manager alerted officials within the department at the time, saying that if the city did not pay the bill, it could experience contamination similar to what occurred in Flint, Michigan, in 2014, according to the report.
DPW was approved for an emergency procurement request June 13 and most outstanding invoices to the vendor were paid, the report found. An emergency contract that included the price increase was signed in July and is in place through January.
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A Public Works supervisor said delivery of the chemical was halted for about two weeks, causing the supply at Montebello Plants I and II to reach a “critically low level compared to the amount normally stored on-site,” according to the report.
Minutes from the Dec. 22 Board of Estimates meeting show the board approved an extension of a contract with Greer Industries of West Virginia for quick lime, a chemical used to improve the quality of drinking water. The renewal cost the city $500,000.
John Bossio, executive vice president for sales at Greer Industries, confirmed that his company had a contract dispute with Baltimore last summer that he described as “quickly resolved.” Bossio said he did not recall stopping shipments to Baltimore. If they were paused, it was not for as long as two weeks, he said.
“We are aware of the importance of lime in drinking water and try to make other avenues available for payment if need be,” Bossio said.
Baltimore is up to date on payments to the company, but there are still challenges with getting payments processed correctly and quickly, he said.
In her report, Cumming recommended Baltimore review its process for contacting vendors to avoid future miscommunications. The inspector general also recommended establishing standard operating procedures for pricing disputes with vendors and improving communications among agencies to avoid disruptions in service, “specifically those with public health implications.”
In a joint response to the report, Jason Mitchell, the city’s director of DPW, and Michael Moiseyev, director of finance, said the city is working to establish a standard operating procedure for price disputes as well as new contract language specifying when vendors must request a price increase.