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Politics

Frustration builds over Baltimore E. coli contaminated water as day passes without updates

Frustrations mounted among West Baltimore residents and their City Council representatives Tuesday as an order to boil water due to an E. coli contamination stretched into a second day with few updates from public works officials or Mayor Brandon Scott.

The dangerous bacteria, first detected in some water supply samples in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods over the weekend, prompted officials to call Monday for residents in a much larger swath of the city and a neighboring section of Baltimore County to boil their water.

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By Tuesday, little more was known. Department of Public Works officials provided no updates on its ongoing search for the source of the contamination nor the effects of its efforts to flush the system with more chlorinated water in the area.

Scott said in a news release Tuesday evening that his office and the Department of Public Works were still working to identify the contamination’s source.

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As members of the City Council voiced concerns about outreach to residents affected by the contamination, Scott defended his administration’s rollout of information, saying it met Maryland Department of Environment standards. A spokeswoman said, however, the mayor “regrets that the public was not more widely informed earlier than Monday” of the contamination.

Scott’s staff, which by the end of the day had assumed control of all communications on the situation from the Department of Public Works, said they were waiting on the results of water tests performed late Monday. Results were not due to be returned until late Tuesday at the earliest, they said. Scott said Tuesday evening that 24 samples had been collected and that the Department of Public Works would release more information when results from all the samples were available.

Residents, officials and advocates have expressed frustration with the way the contamination was shared with the public.

Although Scott said water samples turned up E. coli Saturday, the city’s Department of Public Works first posted a tweet about the problem Monday morning. It stated that the contamination appeared limited to the fire station and police facilities where problematic samples were first detected, but added that residents nearby “may want to consider boiling any water used from faucets.”

While there are no reports of anyone being sickened, E. coli can cause significant intestinal distress and can be dangerous for those with other conditions.

It would be 12 hours before Scott spoke at a news conference to address the swirling questions. Scott said the positive specimens needed retesting per emergency protocol before the public was notified.

“The City needs to account for the unjust delays in issuing a public alert and make transparency a part of their plan going forward,” wrote Tony Bridges, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit focused on the health of the waterways in and around the city.

Rianna Eckel, a Baltimore organizer with Food and Water Watch and the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, called the department’s initial reliance on Twitter to spread information about the contamination worrying given the network’s limited reach.

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“It’s a tool, but we should be using many, many tools,” Eckel said.

In a statement Tuesday, Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the Department of Public Works also posted messages on the website Nextdoor for targeted neighborhoods and city employees canvassed the area in person.

The boil water alert covers about 1,500 homes and facilities across roughly 56 city blocks. The area is bounded by Riggs Avenue to West Franklin Street, north to south, and Carey Street to Pulaski Street, east to west. The median annual household income of the census tracts in the alert area averages around $26,000, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey five-year estimates.

A larger area is subject to a lesser boil water advisory. That swath, which extends across West Baltimore into southwest Baltimore County and is home to about 100,000 people, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, includes nearby areas where water samples did not find E. coli and total coliform.

A statement issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment Tuesday afternoon indicated the advisory area is “hydraulically connected” to the places in West Baltimore where E. coli concentrations were discovered, but the threat doesn’t appear to extend beyond that area.

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Inspectors from the environment department were on-site Tuesday evaluating the distribution system, treatment systems, pumping facilities, and other infrastructure in the affected community. MDE said its staffers are likely to begin inspections at “certain treatment facilities” in the coming days.

City officials said Monday they were confident the contamination was not associated with wastewater treatment or the city’s three water treatment plants, which test every two hours and have not produced unusual results recently. Still, problems can occur where bacteria are introduced to water in the distribution system. When that occurs, the best remedy is to increase the dosage of chlorine, officials said.

City public works officials did not respond to questions or requests from The Baltimore Sun for the precise sampling data that triggered the boil water advisory, or for information about communications with residents and efforts to flush and repair the water system.

Eckel called the problems “horrific,” especially since they are centralized in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods for which water bills are often unaffordable.

Residents, meanwhile, queued at city distribution sites for gallons of water, as schools, hospitals and businesses grappled with the contamination concerns.

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At Grace Medical Center in West Baltimore water and ice machines were fenced off and patients received bottles instead. Meals for schoolchildren in the affected parts of the city and county were prepared in other kitchens, as students received bottled water and hand sanitizer.

At the Harlem Park Recreation Center on North Calhoun Street, cars stopped briefly Tuesday afternoon as workers loaded gallon jugs of water through open windows.

James Edwards, 50, walked to the water distribution site with a small cart in tow.

“If it ain’t the corona [virus], it’s the water,” he said. “The next you know, they’re going to say we can’t breathe fresh air.”

Tykia Dudley, 28, who lives in the Harlem Park area, called the water contamination “terrifying.”

She said she first learned about the situation from social media posts, she hasn’t received any direct communication from the city — no one has knocked on her door or left a letter explaining the situation.

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Dudley said she lives with her son, daughter, fiance, mother and three of her siblings, so the three gallons of bottled water she received at the Harlem Park pick-up site Tuesday afternoon won’t last long.

”For all of us, it’s not a lot,” she said.

She anticipates boiling plenty more water in the days ahead. Carting buckets of boiled water upstairs in her three-story home has been a challenge, as has explaining the process to her 5-year-old.

“My son doesn’t understand why he can’t take a bath or drink the water,” she said.

Members of the Baltimore City Council who represent the affected areas said Tuesday they were reaching out to city residents in need of clean water and speaking to those who may not have seen earlier announcements from the Department of Public Works.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, whose district is in the advisory area, released a statement Tuesday saying the residents of West and Southwest Baltimore are being denied a basic human right.

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“We cannot expect Baltimoreans to invest in the future of the city when the city does not invest in their ability to have a healthy tomorrow,” she said. “People who have historically borne the brunt of generational negligence of our city infrastructure are asked to accommodate and understand the shortcomings of failing systems. We must do better.”

Porter, who has worked in public health, told The Sun she understands the public works department’s communications team is short-staffed, but there will be an “opportunity for growth” as officials look back on the response, she said.

“This is a public health emergency,” she said. “Having those standard operating procedures in place will be important.”

Councilman John Bullock, who represents the city’s ninth district where the contamination is centered, said he received a text Sunday evening from the Department of Public Works stating that the area was being tested and flushed, however no reason was given. It wasn’t until Monday when the tweets were posted that Bullock said he also received a message from the department’s director Jason Mitchell notifying him of the E. coli contamination.

Bullock said it would have been helpful to get earlier notice. Many residents aren’t active on social media and relied on word-of-mouth communication, he said.

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“It would have allayed some of the concerns had there been more frequent communication,” he said.

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Baltimore’s water system serves 1.8 million households and businesses in the city and parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. Its supply is held in three reservoirs outside the city and filtered at three city plants, two at Lake Montebello and one in Ashburton. They have a capacity of 400 million gallons per day.

The water system has seen investments in recent years to replace surface water storage with buried tanks at Lake Montebello and Druid Lake and in Guilford. And public works officials say they are constantly testing to ensure water is safe to drink, taking samples from 90 locations, about 360 samples a month.

At the same time, the system’s age can make problems widespread, and challenging to keep up with. There are more than 4,000 miles of water mains, mostly made of cast or ductile iron, with an average age of 75 years. Some mains date to before the Civil War and water main breaks are common.

The latest annual report on the city’s drinking water quality found it met all regulatory standards.

The division of the city Department of Public Works responsible for maintaining the drinking water system is separate from the one in charge of wastewater treatment, which has been at the center of major environmental concerns for the past year. Major failures have been reported at both of the city’s wastewater treatment plants, leading to unsafe levels of bacteria and alarmingly high levels of pollution in waterways.

Baltimore Sun reporters Steve Earley, Meredith Cohn and Cassidy Jensen contributed to this article.


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