Baltimore City Council members condemned communication efforts by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration on the recent contamination of city water with E. coli, saying they were “disgusted” and “disappointed” with the flow of information to residents.
The public denunciation Thursday came in response to the Labor Day weekend contamination, which forced thousands of people in West Baltimore and some in Baltimore County to boil tap water for days until the system could be flushed. The final boil water advisory was lifted late last week, although the source of the contamination has not been found.
At a hearing, council members scrutinized the first 24 to 48 hours of the city’s response, criticizing both the pace at which information was rolled out and the methods chosen to get that message across.
Officials with the Department of Public Works offered at the hearing a detailed timeline of their actions. It showed the first positive test was recorded at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 3, but notice was not widely disseminated to the public until the morning of Sept. 5, which was Labor Day.
The department tweeted about the contamination that morning. Officials told members of the City Council they also posted messages on the online platform Nextdoor that were targeted toward specific neighborhoods. Around 8 a.m. that day, six city employees started knocking on doors in the most affected areas, which were centered in Sandtown-Winchester, to inform residents, officials told the council.
Multiple council members questioned the wisdom of using Twitter, as opposed to other social media platforms or methods of communication, particularly given the limited internet access and older ages of some West Baltimore residents.
“How long would it have taken to copy that information?” asked Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, questioning why, at minimum, other social media platforms were not used.
“It doesn’t take long,” Public Works Director Jason Mitchell acknowledged. “To your point, there was a lot of lessons learned.”
Mitchell echoed that refrain numerous times over the span of the nearly four-hour hearing, pledging to get more city officials from other departments involved responding to future emergencies. Baltimore’s Emergency Operations Center was not activated until late on the afternoon of Sept. 5.
DPW also announced plans to release the results of routine water testing in the city once a month to increase transparency.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Scott, who last week defended DPW’s handling of the issue, told The Baltimore Sun his office will take the reins of all emergency communications moving forward. The city also will employ any and all methods of communication available, including text alerts, the Democratic mayor and his staff said.
Text or phone alerts to residents were not deployed during the water contamination, a point of concern for several council members. Baltimore has two systems, said Emergency Management Director James Wallace: Bmore Alert, which reaches city residents’ landlines phones and a wireless emergency alert system that’s used for missing child alerts and weather events more than anything else.
Wallace said the city could have sent a wireless alert, but needed a specific zone to target and directions for residents to follow. Also, there were concerns that a wide swath of Baltimoreans would receive the message, many of whom don’t live in the boil water advisory area, he said. There were fears 311 and 911 would be inundated with calls as a result, he said.
“The challenge is this did effect a wide swath of people,” said Democratic Councilman Zeke Cohen, whose East Baltimore district was not affected.
He nonetheless fielded hundreds of messages from constituents about what was happening.
“I think this really was a regional event — or it became one when we found out there was a potential contamination,” Cohen said. “To me, this would have been a great tool.”
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s health commissioner, told members of City Council there are no known cases of E. coli sickness among city residents as a result of the contamination.
DPW officials said they continue to search for the source of the contamination.
A battery of tests in the advisory zone sampled Tuesday came back negative, said Yosef Kebede, head of the city’s Bureau of Water & Wastewater. Officials don’t believe the contamination came from a construction site, he said, eliminating one of the theories officials are exploring.
Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, who partnered with Democratic Councilman John Bullock to call for the hearing, questioned whether city officials violated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that require notifying residents within 24 hours of water contamination. The results of a second test, confirming the contamination, were received Sept. 4 at 9 a.m.
DPW officials said they contacted residents within 24 hours of that confirmation. Workers knocked on doors starting at 8 a.m. on Sept. 5, while tweets and posts on Nextdoor went up around 7:30 a.m. that day.
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An official boil water advisory with a map showing the specific area, however, was not released until around 4:30 p.m.
“If DPW’s position was the tweets and posts on Nextdoor at 7:30 a.m. were sufficient to the spirit of public notification for the Safe Drinking Water Act and the rules and regulations, that is severely disappointing,” Costello said. “You utilized about two of about a dozen communication tools.”
Several council members lamented not being contacted themselves by the Department of Public Works about the contamination. Many found out about the situation from Bullock, whose district was most directly affected, or from social media.
Democratic Councilman James Torrence, whose district is just north of the area covered by the boil water advisory, demanded better communication.
“When we are impacted across council districts, the streets don’t matter,” Torrence said of district boundaries. “I need to make sure you connect with every council person.”
City Administrator Chris Shorter acknowledged a need to improve communication among all city agencies, not just with DPW. Public Works officials were focused on testing requirements and making sure protocols were followed, he said.
“Where we needed to hand off communication so it was wider was to you and your colleagues and to our residents,” he said. “There are opportunities for us to do better in that coordination.”