Baltimore officials reduced the boundaries of a boil-water advisory on Wednesday, after another round of water testing results returned one positive test for E. coli and coliform contamination in West Baltimore.
Department of Public Works Director Jason W. Mitchell said Wednesday afternoon the agency is still working to identify the source of the contaminants, which were first detected in three different areas in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood during routine testing last week.
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At a news conference Wednesday night, Mayor Brandon Scott reduced the advisory area to a portion of West Baltimore spanning from North and South Riggs Ave. to West Franklin St. and East and West Carey St. to Pulaski Ave.
The areas that have been removed from the boundary span from south and southwest of Route 40. Scott said testing in this area has never had any positive bacteria results and was only included as a precautionary measure.
He also announced that the the city will discount all water bills throughout the city 25% for the next billing cycle. “We understand the inconvenience that this has caused residents in reference to water usage,” he said.
The city collected additional specimens on Monday evening, and Mitchell said all of the city’s 90 water distribution areas both inside and outside the advisory area would be tested. So far, results from 25 of those sites yielded only one positive test, which is an improvement from the weekend, Mitchell said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Office of Emergency Management’s headquarters on Calvert Street.
The sample that came back positive in the latest round of tests was captured at the police station at 1034 North Mount St., he said.
The police station was one of three locations that first reported positive results last week. The other two sites, one at the Baltimore City Engine Company 8 on West Lafayette Ave. and another at the 900 block of North Carey St., have reported negative results in subsequent testing, indicating improvement, Mitchell added.
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said the city agency is aware of two people in the advisory zone displaying symptoms of gastrointestinal illness and is investigating if those cases are linked to exposure to the water. She said the health department is in touch with city hospitals Grace Medical Center, University of Maryland Medical Center’s midtown campus and St. Agnes to monitor instances of E. coli symptoms.
The contamination “cannot be resolved overnight,” Mayor Brandon Scott said. Acknowledging criticism of the city’s communication with the public, Scott blamed the lags on Maryland Department of the Environment regulations. He said that DPW must coordinate with MDE about test results before sharing them with the public. He declined to give a specific time frame for when the public can expect the next round of testing results.
He also announced that the city will begin delivering water to homebound residents in the boil-water advisory area. They can dial 311 to arrange a delivery.
The city will continue to distribute water at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, Middle Branch Park and the Lansdowne Library on Wednesday; residents are encouraged to bring their own containers. According to a news release from the mayor’s office, a total of 172,000 bottles were distributed at the locations from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
Picking up water at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School on Wednesday, Mo Williams said the one case of water she received is just barely enough.
”You could use more than five or six waters to prep a meal, and to wash dishes,” she said. She noted that the case is not enough to share with elderly neighbors who can’t get to the distribution center.
Tia Downer, a resident of Gilmor Homes, also visited the school to pick up water. She said she didn’t receive any notices or warnings from the city, but instead found out Tuesday evening through word-of-mouth.
She’s been drinking the for days, she said. “And we been using it to cook, because we didn’t know,” she said. No one in her household has had any symptoms, “but that doesn’t mean they won’t,” she said.
Torbin Green, executive director of St. Francis Neighborhood Center, said he filled the bed of his Dodge Durango with 70 cases of bottled water as soon as he heard about the city’s boil-water advisory, knowing it would be needed.
St. Francis has advertised free bottled water at its headquarters in Reservoir Hill during working hours all this week. On Tuesday the nonprofit gave out around 70 cases, Green said, and provided at least 150 more during a previously scheduled food distribution on Wednesday.
For many of the residents coming through St. Francis, the response to the city’s boil-water advisory has been “hysteria,” Green said. While the nonprofit director is confident much of the advisory will be resolved by the weekend, many of the residents who come through have expressed confusion and frustration at the city’s delayed communications about the contamination.
The city should have more than three official water distribution sites in West Baltimore, Green said, but that’s where nonprofits come in. “We fill in the gaps,” he said.
Campaign Zero, an anti-police-brutality organization, purchased 36 pallets with 24 water bottles each to distribute to senior housing complexes within the boil-water advisory zone, said co-founder DeRay Mckesson. Though city leaders helped him identify and prioritize where to deliver water, there’s room for improvement, he said.
“The city has a lot of work to do on emergency management infrastructure,” Mckesson said. “Older citizens are often forgotten about and we wanted to focus on the population who could not easily get to the distribution sites, knowing that everyone deserves water.”
E. Coli and total coliform were first identified at Engine Company 8 during testing conducted Friday. DPW tested upstream and downstream locations at the Baltimore Police Department station at 1034 North Mount St. and a site at 920 North Carey St; tests at the former showed coliform and tests at the latter showed coliform and E. coli. The bacteria naturally occurs in humans and animals, but their presence indicates the possibility water has been contaminated with waste.
The city did not enact 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. The advisory stretches over large portions of West Baltimore, South Baltimore and southwestern Baltimore County. City officials said in a press conference Monday night that most of the area was included as a precautionary measure, while a smaller area encompassing about 1,500 homes and businesses in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods are directly affected.
Mitchell said the agency has met all oversight guidelines in alerting residents about the contamination.
“We tried our best under emergency circumstances to alert people as fast and as quickly as possible,” he said. “We have our boots on the ground and we’re trying to reach as many residents as possible.”
An internal report distributed to agency heads obtained by The Baltimore 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,” DPW processed a coliform reading from the site. “The theory is that no pumping resulted in low chlorination in the distribution system,” the report says.
Mitchell said the station was taken offline to complete a valve replacement. “At this time, we’re still assessing what’s caused the contamination,” he said.
Baltimore Banner reporters Cadence Quaranta and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.