Public works and city officials admitted missteps Thursday in their response to the recent E. coli scare in West Baltimore, acknowledging room for improvement in their emergency approach and communication to residents.
The discussion came during a marathon hearing before the City Council’s Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee, in which members interrogated leadership in the city’s Department of Public Works over their Labor Day weekend response to bacteria discovered in the water system that feeds West Baltimore. Elected officials and residents have criticized the city’s communication of a wide-ranging boil-water advisory as both delayed and confusing.
DPW director Jason Mitchell told council members that the department has many “lessons learned” from last week’s events. The department is taking steps to improve its communication with council members, its attention to “accurate, timely and consistent messaging” to the public, and its prioritization of outreach that ensures vulnerable communities, such as those living in senior centers, are informed, he said.
The department is implementing new emergency response protocols, conducting emergency response training and reorganizing its communications division to better prepare for similar situations, Mitchell said.
“We learned a lot of lessons. I learned a lot of lessons,” Mitchell said. “And even though we were within our protocols, we have to and we must get better.”
Still, some council members weren’t appeased by the department’s mea culpa.
“The most critical time of crisis is those first 24 hours, and frankly, I was disgusted by how those first 24 hours was handled,” said Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer.
He said the department’s delayed response endangered residents in the affected area and has fueled distrust in the city’s water system.
DPW initially informed residents through a series of tweets Labor Day morning that it had discovered E. coli in the water at three test sites in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. Later in the day, the city designated a targeted area encompassing about 1,500 homes and businesses as directly affected by the contamination. Tens of thousands of residents in a broader area of West Baltimore and Baltimore County were told to boil their water as a precaution.
The city is not aware of any residents who have become ill as result of the contamination, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa told council members Thursday.
Monica Lewis, spokeswoman for Mayor Brandon Scott, said the administration is assessing whether there were “more efficient” ways to inform the public. In hindsight, she acknowledged that social media might not have been the best way to reach the broader public. In future emergency situations that require disseminating information citywide, the mayor’s office will be “essentially running point” to get word out to the public, Lewis said.
During the hearing — which lasted nearly four hours — Mitchell laid out a detailed timeline showing when DPW learned about the contamination, the steps it took to coordinate with state environmental regulators and its efforts to inform the public. DPW registered its first positive E. coli test at the fire station on West Lafayette Street at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3 and re-sampled the site 90 minutes later. The city alerted Maryland Department of the Environment to the positive test nearly five hours later, after additional testing. Confirmation of a second positive test came back at 9 a.m. the following morning, and DPW informed state regulators through an emergency hotline shortly after.
It took another 23 hours before DPW began telling residents on Labor Day. The department tweeted the news at 7:43 a.m. and posted on Nextdoor, the online forum. No other online or automated communication occurred until nine hours later, when the department issued its wide-ranging boil-water advisory.
Last Friday morning, after flushing the system and testing for bacteria across the city, Scott and DPW informed residents that they had received an “all clear” from state regulators to lift the boil-water advisory.
Mitchell said the department’s focus was on door knocking and having “boots on the ground,” which it saw as the most effective way of getting the word out. Six DPW liaisons began knocking on doors at 8 a.m. on Labor Day and were able to notify about 1,200 people by the end of the day, Mitchell said.
Still, several council members noted that many residents have reported they didn’t hear about the issue from DPW. The timeline also runs counter to DPW work observed by a Banner reporter in the blocks surrounding a DPW staging area in Sandtown-Winchester on Labor Day, where department staff arrived at nearly 11 a.m. Multiple residents who spoke with The Banner throughout that morning had not yet heard about the contamination.
Councilman Eric Costello said he heard from senior living facilities who were given incorrect information about whether they fell within the city’s boil-water advisory. The District 11 councilman questioned why it took DPW until nearly 4:30 p.m. on Labor Day to formally issue a boil-water advisory, 31 hours after confirmation of bacterial contamination, and argued that the department violated a regulatory requirement to inform the public within 24 hours of confirmed bacteria.
If it’s DPW’s position that the tweets and posts on Nextdoor fulfilled the spirit of the law, “that is severely disappointing,” Costello said.
City administrator Chris Shorter also acknowledged that the city can improve its coordination across agencies. Much of DPW’s attention was focused on testing water for bacteria and coordinating with environmental regulators, and the city could have done a better job of handing off communication duties, Shorter said.
Meanwhile, the city’s data officer should have been activated immediately in order to accurately track the status of the incident, James Wallace, deputy chief of the city’s Office of Emergency Management told council members, and the emergency department should have better coordinated with volunteers and nonprofits in the distribution of bottled water to affected residents.
Several council members also sought more information on DPW’s investigation into the cause of contamination. Department officials have ruled out contamination at the reservoirs feeding the local water system, the city’s three water treatment plants as well as its troubled wastewater plants. Mitchell said two recent water main breaks and valve replacements in the vicinity may have led to the contamination.
Baltimore’s boil-water advisory played out as tens of thousands of residents in Jackson, Mississippi, another majority Black city, remained under a boil-water advisory after they were left without basic water service for a week. Other cities, such as Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans, issue boil water advisories on an almost routine basis.
Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents District 6, said there were missteps across many city agencies, including the mayor’s office.
“I’m not putting the blame directly on you,” Middleton told DPW officials. “I think the entire city failed.”
Ben Conarck contributed to this story.