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Baltimore City Council sets hearings on Labor Day weekend E. coli water contamination, calling communication ‘unclear and inconsistent’

The Baltimore City Council has scheduled a series of hearings to discuss the city’s response to a Labor Day weekend E. coli outbreak in a portion of the city’s drinking water system.

The hearings, which will begin Thursday at 1 p.m. and continue on the following two Thursdays, were called by the council’s Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee at the request of Democratic Councilman Eric Costello. He said the administration’s “unclear and inconsistent” communication of information with the public led to widespread confusion.

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Costello, who represents South Baltimore, said the Department of Public Works “went dark” for nine hours on Labor Day after issuing a series of tweets announcing the contamination. He faulted a low-resolution graphic distributed by the department for further confusion about who lived inside the area where people were advised to boil their water and who did not.

“Clear and consistent communication in any emergency is critically important,” Costello said Monday during a City Council meeting.

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The department announced the contamination on the morning of Sept. 5 on Twitter and on the online platform Nextdoor, according to city officials. City employees canvassed the area of West Baltimore closest to the known contaminated sites, which were centered in Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester, to inform residents.

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Residents in that area and a wider territory that extended into a portion of Baltimore County were asked to boil their water for several days as crews flushed the system and searched for the source of the contamination. The extended boil water advisory was lifted on the night of Sept. 7 and the final restrictions were lifted Sept. 9, although no source for the contamination has been announced.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said early last week that he regretted residents were not informed of the contamination earlier, but he also sought to defend his administration’s flow of information, saying there “was no bungling of communication.”

“We followed the protocol of how we communicate. MDE [the Maryland Department of the Environment] says to DPW, ‘Yes, you can say this at this time.’ That was followed. This wasn’t something DPW mismanaged,” Scott said.

Democratic Councilman John Bullock, who represents the area of the city that was most heavily impacted, on Monday called the contamination a “public health crisis” that challenged seniors and other vulnerable residents of his district.

“Although social media can be a very important tool, it’s probably not the best one to use at that particular time,” Bullock said.

Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who chairs the Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee, said he scheduled three hearings on the matter “in case we don’t get answers from DPW as often happens at DPW hearings.”

Hearings on E. coli contamination will be held on the following dates in Baltimore City Council chambers:

  • Thursday at 1 p.m.
  • Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.
  • Sept. 29 at 2 p.m.

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