City officials issued a wide-ranging boil-water notice on Monday affecting residents in West Baltimore neighborhoods after total coliform and E. coli contaminants were discovered during routine tap water testing Sunday.
The Baltimore Department of Public Works said in a series of early-morning tweets that the contaminants were found at the Baltimore City Fire Department’s Engine 8 station, located at 1503 West Lafayette Ave.; the Baltimore Police Department station at 1034 North Mount St.; and a location at 920 North Carey St. Though DPW said Monday morning that “the impact appears only at the facilities listed above,” elected officials questioned that throughout the day and whether widespread efforts to distribute bottled water and warn residents indicated a larger problem.
Nine hours after the initial tweets, the agency issued a boil-water advisory that covered about 1,500 homes and businesses in an area bounded by Riggs Avenue on the north, Casey Street on the east, West Franklin Street on the south and Pulaski Street on the west. The contamination appeared to be concentrated in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods, though additional testing will provide more certainty.
The public works department also mapped out a far broader area that it identified as a boil-water advisory boundary, where residents might want to boil water as a precaution. But it had added that the “most recent” tests in those areas came back negative. Anne Arundel County notes that although the larger map covers the northern tip of the county, it does not purchase any water from the city, so no Anne Arundel residents have to boil their water.
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. Residents near the contamination zone were upset to learn about the E. coli discovery several hours after they had done many of those things.
“Once DPW confirms water safety, the Boil Water Advisory will be lifted, and residents will be notified,” the public works department said in its Monday evening press release.
The department added that it was still working to find the source of the contamination, while continuously flushing the system, adding more chlorine and performing a variety of other tests.
Some City Council members demanded more transparency, clearer communication and better efforts to distribute bottled water to affected people.
Councilman John Bullock, who represents District 9, said in a phone interview Monday that he was notified on Sunday night that the DPW was doing testing and flushing, but didn’t know it was related to a positive E. coli test until Monday.
“The timeline of communication has not been the best,” Bullock said.
Bullock, whose team was helping notify District 9 residents on Monday by handing out flyers, said he had been informed that the contamination was contained to specific areas, but was unclear just what that meant. He advised caution for anyone living near the locations.
Ianthia Darden, who has lived in the area for more than 50 years, politely greeted DPW workers and marched up and down her block on North Stricker Street to make sure her neighbors knew what was going on. Darden said she was bothered that she noticed crews working on Sunday evening but heard nothing about the threat posed by E. coli until Monday morning.
“Suppose that people cooked food and took showers when they could have avoided it,” Darden said, pointing out that elderly people and young children — among the groups at greater risk — live on the street.
Reporters and some city residents called attention to the city’s efforts to distribute water, which included delivering cases of bottled water and also offering one two-gallon jug of water per household for pickup. There were concerns that water was not being delivered directly to senior citizens.
Shortly after the DPW’s initial series of tweets, Councilman Zeke Cohen of District 1 took to Twitter to ask the agency if it was possible that the contamination extended beyond District 9.
“What are you doing right now to mitigate it so ALL of our residents have clean, drinkable water?” Cohen asked.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of District 5 said late Monday afternoon, before DPW issued its news release, that his understanding was that the E. coli was discovered midday on Sunday. He spent much of Monday working on getting more details.
“It’s negligent of DPW’s communications department to not blitz out all available information and warnings to all the possibly affected communities where there was confirmed E. coli in the water system,” Schleifer said. “The fact that over 24 hours later, there are still people who are not aware and who are possibly affected, is a complete injustice.”
Mayor Brandon M. Scott said in a statement Monday afternoon that he had directed the DPW “to do the necessary work to expeditiously resolve the matter.”
“Understanding that safe water is not just something that is nice to have, but rather a necessity for us all, we know DPW is committed to working with local and state agencies to ensure that the situation is addressed in a timely fashion,” the statement said.
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.