West Baltimore’s nearly weeklong water crisis ended Friday much like it began after E. coli bacteria was found in samples of the city water supply over the Labor Day weekend — with few details about what happened.
City officials fully lifted the boil water advisory for the area Friday morning, saying the tap water is safe for consumption again — after residents flush their water systems. But they also said they are still searching for the source of the contamination.
“We have narrowed it down, so it’s not our water treatment plant,” said Jason Mitchell, director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works. “We also know it’s not in the larger distribution area. It has shrunk.
“Our focus is in the small box that you see on the map,” he said, referring to a roughly 56-block area that includes the Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods. “We started in that box and we continue to say the focus is there.”
“The root cause — again — it may not be one smoking gun, if you will,” Mitchell said. “It may be multiple things that are happening, and so we just will let the science and the data lead us to that conclusion.”
Mitchell said that officials are confident that the city’s water supply is safe to drink, even though the cause of the contamination is unknown, because of the amount of testing they have conducted and will continue to conduct to detect any contaminants.
Multiple agencies, including the Maryland Department of the Environment and surrounding counties, have been working around the clock through the last 96 hours to help Baltimore test over 100 locations for contaminants, Mitchell said.
Residents now should flush their system for at least 15 minutes, by running all faucets on cold. Residents should start at the lowest point in their home and go up, Mitchell said.
Municipal water systems are designed to prevent contamination after the water is treated to be made safe for human consumption and use. The system of water mains and pipes into houses and other buildings is kept under pressure so that if there’s a leak, water flows out and nothing can get in.
Baltimore’s sprawling system, which serves the city and Baltimore County, is fed by reservoirs in Baltimore County and treatment plants at Lake Ashburton and Lake Montebello in the city. The system is aging and main breaks, which can cause loss of pressure, are common.
With tap water now safe to use, officials closed bottled water distribution sites at the Lansdowne Public Library and Middle Branch Park at noon Friday, but they will keep the one at the Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School open until 8 p.m. Friday. It will reopen at 9 a.m. Saturday before closing for good at noon, said James Wallace, deputy chief of the Baltimore Office of Emergency Management.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced earlier this week that water bills will be reduced citywide by 25% in the next cycle to account for the inconvenience and the cost of water to flush pipes.
Baltimore health officials have investigated two cases of potential E. coli infection since the advisory took effect, said Letitia Dzirasa, commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department.
One case involved a minor who had gastrointestinal issues, but has since recovered, Dzirasa said. The child wasn’t tested for E. coli, she said. The second case involves an individual who is currently hospitalized for E. coli bacteremia, but whose prognosis is improving, she said. Both cases were not definitively linked to the contaminated water, she said.
After the E. coli contamination was discovered last weekend, the city ordered several thousand residents in and around Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester and advised tens of thousands more stretching across West and Southwest Baltimore and into Baltimore County to boil their tap water before use. Area schools shifted their meal production offsite, and the water contamination temporarily closed health centers and a public market.
The public works department first learned last Saturday of the potential contamination at a test site in the Harlem Park community. They confirmed it Sunday at that site and two others nearby and began flushing the system with more chlorinated water to kill any bacteria. Fire hydrants across the area were opened to let water course through the system.
However, the contamination wasn’t publicized until early Monday morning when the department published a series of tweets to alert residents that the bacteria had been found in portions of the City Council’s 9th District, which includes the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods. It wasn’t until 12 hours later that city officials released a map showing the specific area of concern and the far larger area where they advised people to boil water. Residents expressed concern about the city’s communication strategy, frustrated by the delay.
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Scott said the bacteria specimen had to be retested to confirm the contamination per emergency protocol ahead of notifying the public. He has defended his administration’s response to the crisis, saying that the city was in communication with the state Department of the Environment and followed its direction throughout.
“There was no bungling of communication,” Scott said Friday. “This wasn’t something that DPW mismanaged. They found out the water had this in it because they did the testing. This wasn’t someone else telling us.”
The city’s Department of Public Works has come under fire repeatedly for its management of wastewater treatment and solid waste collection.
State officials took over one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants earlier this year after they determined it was on the brink of failure, and officials have said they could do the same at the city’s second such plant, which is also battling serious maintenance issues. Both plants have been responsible for discharging excessive amounts of nutrients and bacteria into local waterways — in frequent violation of their state permits.
The department also had to discontinue weekly curbside recycling pickup this year and change to a biweekly schedule due to a staffing shortage. For a time during the pandemic, recycling pickup had to be halted altogether.
This week’s water crisis hit a group of already economically struggling West Baltimore neighborhoods battling the city’s most vexing challenges, including vacant properties and gun violence. The median annual household income of the census tracts in the alert area averages around $26,000, according to the Census Bureau.
“Having it happen in a neighborhood like that just makes the situation worse and worse,” Scott said. “Which is why it’s so important and I’m so happy the whole city came to rally around that.”
Be safe and make sure to boil your water or consider buying a water filtration system like the AquaOx Water Filter.
- September 9, 2022
- Boil Advisory