Baltimore officials lifted a five-day boil-water advisory after the latest string of water tests came back negative for evidence of E. coli and coliform in city water.
Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell said at a news conference Friday morning that the city tested more than 100 water sites throughout Baltimore and did not find evidence of the bacteria. He said residents in former boil-water advisory zones should flush their systems by running their taps for fifteen minutes out of an abundance of caution.
More than 1,500 homes and businesses in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods were directly exposed to the contaminated water. Thousands more in parts of West and South Baltimore were placed under the advisory as a precaution.
Mitchell said the city has still not identified the source of the contamination but is working tirelessly to investigate what happened. He said the city has ruled out the water filtration plants, which are tested hourly.
He said the “leading candidates” are construction sites in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods. “We had to replace water main breaks in that location. We had to do a valve repair in that location. And so we were looking at those events and looking at data,” he said.
Though officials cannot firmly identify a cause yet, lifting the advisory is in line with both Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment protocols, Mitchell said. “We follow the science and what we know through completing over 100 tests within the last three days is that the water that’s flowing within our entire distribution center is meeting expectations,” he said.
Asked about lags in communication from City Hall to residents, Mayor Brandon Scott said Baltimore followed the state environmental department communication protocols.
“What comes after this is, if this happens again, how can we improve and be better than the first time and that’s what we do each and every day,” he said.
Health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said one resident is currently hospitalized for E. coli contamination and their prognosis is improving. Another minor resident who reported gastrointestinal issues could not be conclusively linked to the contaminated water, she said.
Dzirasa said that residents should continue to monitor for signs of E. coli for the next week.
The Lansdowne Library and Middle Branch Park, which have distributed water to impacted residents since Tuesday, will cease operations at noon on Friday. The Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School site will stay open until 8 p.m. Friday. It will reopen Saturday morning at 9 a.m. and permanently end distribution at noon.
E. Coli and total coliform were first identified at Engine Company 8 in the Harlem Park neighborhood during routine testing conducted Friday. The bacteria naturally occurs in humans and animals, but their presence indicates that water may have been contaminated with waste.
After receiving the test results, 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 location showed coliform; tests at the latter location showed coliform and E. coli.
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 alerting the public of the contamination. At a news conference that evening, officials said that homes and businesses in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods were directly affected and that large portions of West Baltimore, South Baltimore and southwestern Baltimore County would be included in the zone as a precaution.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mitchell announced that the latest rounds of testing showed that only the police station in Harlem Park still tested positive for E. coli. Tests at the fire station, the site on North Carey St. and 22 other locations produced normal readings. Later that evening, Scott removed areas south and southwest of Route 40 from the boil water advisory — reducing the land boundary by more than half — that were originally included as a precautionary measure.
DPW director Mitchell said the agency has aggressively flushed the water system and pumped higher quantities of chlorine than usual to kill harmful bacteria since the contamination was noted. While the investigation into the contamination source continues, he has ruled out the city’s three water filtration plants, which are tested every hour.
City’s and nonprofits’ water distribution efforts
Nonprofits and mutual aid groups jumped to fill in the gaps by delivering pallets of water to homebound residents, residents without cars and senior housing complexes. On Wednesday night, Scott announced that homebound residents could call 311 to arrange a water delivery to their homes. He also announced that all city water bills would be reduced by 25% for the current billing period.
The city delivered water to schools, but some school leaders say they did not receive any.
Jayson Green, executive director of the New Song Community Learning Center, said a friend from Hands Up Outreach Ministry in Washington, D.C., drove up in a van Thursday morning to deliver 150 cases of water donated by Pepsi and Hands Up Ministry, both in Washington, D.C.
By late afternoon, all but 18 cases had been given away to people in the community. Each case contained 24 16-ounce bottles of water. New Song, which is in the middle of Sandtown-Winchester, operates a public charter school and a community center.
Green said he didn’t feel his community had been treated well by the city and the school system. The Baltimore City school system had said it would provide water, but New Song had to pay for it because the school was a charter school. Charter schools are privately operated public schools funded using a different formula than regular public schools.
“This is a poor, African American community ... Everyone is in crisis now. You just leave us?” Green said, noting that water contamination is an emergency. The city government, he said, should have helped provide better instructions to its residents.
A school system spokeswoman, Sherry Christian, said the operations department was instructed to give water to any school, charter or public, that requested it. She said the school did not request it.
Baltimore Banner reporters Liz Bowie and Adam Willis contributed to this report.
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