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City officials were awaiting water testing results Tuesday evening that could shed light on the extent of an E. coli and coliform contamination that has left thousands of West Baltimore residents on a boil water advisory since Monday.
Mayor Brandon Scott’s Office said in an update a little before 7:30 p.m. that the Department of Public Works was still working to identify the source of the contaminants, which the city first detected Saturday as part of routine testing. The department collected an additional two dozen specimens on Monday evening, according to the update, and the city plans to notify the public of the results once all samples are returned.
Results can take about 24 hours from the time of testing.
Baltimore’s public works department first “noted” E. coli and coliform at the Fire Department’s Engine Company No. 8 station in West Baltimore through routine testing conducted Friday, according to an incident report sent to agency heads Monday night and obtained by The Baltimore Banner. Another round of tests conducted on Saturday confirmed the original results.
A spokeswoman for Scott said the first round of results — from Friday’s samples — were not available until about 24 hours after the test was conducted.
“Saturday, on the 3rd of September, we were notified of a possible positive test and immediately had the specimen retested for confirmation per emergency protocol,” Scott said at a Monday night news conference.
The Department of Public Works did not issue a wide-ranging boil water advisory until Labor Day, hours after they sent out a series of early-morning tweets advising the public of the contamination. DPW’s water advisory included southwestern parts of Baltimore County, including Arbutus, Halethorpe and Lansdowne.
According to the incident report, after the positive test at Engine Company 8 at 1503 W. Lafayette Ave., officials then sampled upstream and downstream locations at 1304 N. Mount St. and 920 N. Carey St., respectively. The upstream location showed results for coliform, while downstream showed results for coliform and E. coli, bacteria naturally occurring in humans and animals but whose presence indicates the possibility water has been contaminated with waste. Officials retested on Monday and Tuesday.
Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell told WYPR’s Midday program Tuesday afternoon that if the latest tests come back negative, the city will either work with the Maryland Department of the Environment to perform additional tests or will remove the boil water advisory. If the results are positive, he said DPW will continue to flush hydrants in impacted areas and pump higher quantities of chlorine than usual into the water system to ensure the harmful bacteria is killed, as well as test three times a day.
The report obtained by The Banner notes the positive tests occurred after a pumping station in Mount Vernon was taken offline on Aug. 26. The report says that “shortly after,” the Department of Public Works received a coliform reading from that site. “The theory is that no pumping resulted in low chlorination in the distribution system,” the report says. A spokeswoman for the mayor did not answer questions about why the pumping station was taken offline.
In the time since residents learned of the contaminated water, City Council members and residents have decried confusing and delayed communication on the issue from Public Works and City Hall.
Emari Moore, 25, said she doesn’t understand why she had to find out about the E. coli risk in her neighborhood on Twitter and now has to pay out of her own pocket to supplement water she and her family can no longer use.
“It’s ridiculous that I had to find out about this through Twitter — it’s six people in my house — I don’t get it,” said Moore, who was picking up water at Harlem Park. “We started boiling water last night to take quick showers, but to keep having to go out and buy ice [for drinking water] is really frustrating.”
Councilman John Bullock, who represents portions of the impacted areas, told WYPR he was first informed of the situation on Sunday night and was only told that additional sampling was being conducted.
”Essentially, when the information became public, we also became aware that it was E. coli,” he said. ”We do understand that folks didn’t want to cause more alarm, but in not having as much information upfront, I think there was even more alarm that wound up happening.”
Frustrations over communication
The Department of Public Works first notified residents in a series of tweets on Monday morning that it had discovered E. Coli and total coliform at three West Baltimore locations: Engine Company 8; the Baltimore Police Department station at 1034 North Mount St.; and a location at 920 North Carey St.
Nine hours later, the agency issued a sweeping boil water advisory covering a large swath of West Baltimore, South Baltimore and Baltimore County. City officials said in a press conference Monday night that most of the area was included as a precaution, while a smaller area encompassing about 1,500 homes and business concentrated in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods was identified as directly affected. That area is bounded by Riggs Avenue on the north, Casey Street on the east, West Franklin Street on the south and Pulaski Street on the west.
In a statement, a spokesman for Scott said he “understands the frustrations and concerns of his constituents and regrets that the public was not more widely informed earlier than Monday.”
Asked why Department of Public Works did not notify the public of the contamination until Monday morning, Mitchell, the agency’s director, told WYPR that DPW protocol calls for a second test in case of false positives and noted that test results take about 24 hours.
After the second sample was positive, “We began to notify our public immediately, as well as the Maryland Department of Environment and our regulatory partners,” he said.
Still, some residents didn’t learn of the city’s boil water advisory until Monday evening or later.
Middle Branch resident Robert Northrop said he didn’t hear about the contamination until Tuesday morning. No one came to knock on his door and let him know, he said. Instead, he learned on the news.
Northrop said he and his wife both drank the water before they found out about the possibility of contamination. Both are monitoring for symptoms, but Northrop said he’s especially concerned about his wife.
“My wife is diabetic. She doesn’t need other health difficulties,” he said. “I’ve been with her for 45 years, I don’t feel like losing her now.”
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer criticized the Department of Public Works for not being more proactive in its communications of the contamination to residents. Incidents like the one Baltimore is experiencing aren’t uncommon and sometimes can’t be avoided, Schliefer said, but the department needed to move much faster to inform residents of the problem.
Schleifer questioned why the notice wasn’t put out 24 hours earlier. Earlier warnings would have prevented babies from having their formula mixed with E. coli water and allowed senior citizens to stock up on water from corner stores before consuming contaminants.
“They need to answer that,” he said of the public works department. “Their communication has always been an issue, but this is the worst that I’ve ever seen.”
A spokesperson for the public works agency referred comment to the Mayor’s Office. Scott spokeswoman Monica Lewis said results from the second test confirming contamination weren’t received until about 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. Under Maryland Department of the Environment guidelines, the city must publicize information on a positive test within 24 hours.
Lewis said public works began communicating with affected areas on Sunday evening, before posting information on social media and canvassing the area beginning Monday morning.
Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, whose South Baltimore district was partially included in the city’s broader, precautionary boil water footprint, said in a statement Tuesday that Baltimore is not investing in its residents’ futures or abilities to lead healthy lives.
“How can we expect residents of West and Southwest Baltimore to continue to thrive when they are deprived of clean water, a basic human right?” Porter asked. “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.”
In West Baltimore, residents filed through water distribution sites set up by the Department of Public Works on Tuesday. The Mayor’s Office said in Tuesday evening’s update that 172,000 bottles had been distributed to residents as of 6 p.m. Three distribution sites set up by the Office of Emergency Management, at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, Middle Branch Park and Lansdowne Library, closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday evening and were scheduled to reopen in the morning.
Residents were limited to three gallons of water per household on Tuesday, while the city was also scheduled to deploy a “water buffalo,” a mobile water tank, to the Lansdowne Library, where residents could fill their own containers.
Sandra Holmes, 56, lives in the 500 block of Fulton Avenue. She is upset after consuming the contaminated water, and came to Harlem Park Elementary/Middle school to pick up her two gallons of Deer Park water.
“I feel like it had to be in the water for a while, so I’m hoping and praying I don’t get sick,” she said.
At least two Baltimore hospitals are relying on bottled water Tuesday for staff and patients. Grace Medical Center in West Baltimore is in the broader boil water footprint mapped out by the city, Sharon Boston, spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health, which includes Grace Medical Center, said in a statement. And the University of Maryland Medical System said in a statement that its midtown campus, which also falls within the boil water boundary, is relying on bottled water “out of an abundance of caution.”
Under a boil water advisory, residents should boil water for one minute and then allow it to cool before using it to drink, brush teeth, give to pets or other uses.
The Food and Drug Administration says E. coli are “mostly harmless bacteria,” but that eating food or water contaminated with it can lead to mild to severe gastrointestinal illness. It’s typically spread when feces come in contact with food or water. Those infected can start noticing symptoms within a few days. They include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea and/or vomiting, the agency says.
Contamination source remains unknown
Officials are still investigating the source of the contamination. Mitchell said on WYPR that Public Works has ruled out Baltimore’s water treatment plant.
The city’s system is highly pressurized, said Natalie Exum, assistant scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She said the system will usually keep contaminants out due to the high speed of the water traveling through the pipes. Given a pressure loss or a leak, there can be infiltration into the pipe.
Municipalities are charged with ensuring that water coming out of taps is safe to drink. But in old cities like Baltimore, with several expensive problems to maintain at once, that responsibility might shift to being reactive rather than proactive, Exum said.
She added that while residents’ frustrations are understandable, the situation also highlights Baltimore’s capability to assess and respond to a threat to public health.
“This is the system working; this is not Jackson, Mississippi,” she said. “This is not perpetual neglect, but the kind of precautionary work you do to make sure no one gets sick.”
Because Mitchell ruled out the treatment system, it is likely that the contamination is leaking into the water pipes somewhere along the miles it travels, said Upal Ghosh, aenvironmental engineering professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
When there is a rupture, construction, or a pump is turned off, Public Works has to take action elsewhere along the lines to ensure that the pressure in the lines remains high or else contamination can seep in, Ghosh said, adding that he expects the problem will be resolved reasonably soon. “This is something they deal with and understand the system so well that they should be able to fix it,” he said.
Reporters Hallie Miller, Cadence Quaranta and Liz Bowie contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.