Baltimore’s drinking water supply was nearly compromised earlier this year after the city failed to keep up payments to the supplier of a key treatment chemical, according an inspector general report released Tuesday.
Chemicals needed to purify the city’s drinking water fell to “a critical level” at two treatment plants in Northeast Baltimore this June after a vendor temporarily stopped supplying the city, Baltimore’s Office of the Inspector General found. The two-week pause in chemical supplies came after the vendor, which the report does not name, informed the city it had not received numerous payments or heard a response to requests for a price increase from the end of last year.
By the time the vendor threatened to cut off the chemical supply, the city owed more than $77,000 in back payments, according to the report.
Treatment chemicals never ran out, but the report suggests the oversight nearly had disastrous consequences. Chemicals needed to purge copper and lead from drinking water reached critical levels at the Montebello I and Montebello II plants in Northeast Baltimore during an interruption in vendor service.
On June 8, the Department of Public Works asked the vendor for an extension to cover past payments because the Montebello I plant would run out of the chemical if a delivery did not come through within two days. The vendor agreed, but insisted on a partial payment of nearly $44,000 by June 13.
A water system treatment manager informed higher-ups at the public works department that the payment had to be made or the city could face contamination that he likened to Flint, Michigan’s crisis from 2014.
Though the issue identified by the inspector general report stemmed from the city’s procurement division, the risk to the city’s water quality occurred just a few months before tens of thousands of West Baltimore and Baltimore County residents were put under a boil water advisory after the discovery of bacteria in a localized part of the system.
Leaders in the Public Works Department later pointed to a chain of problems stemming from the city’s aging network of water pipes, valves and treatment facilities that allowed E. coli and coliform bacteria to seep into the system.
Tuesday’s report recounts how the vendor issue began in November of last year, when the company reached out to the city’s purchasing agent to request a price increase of $10.89 per unit. The city’s purchasing agent never responded to the request, and the following month the city’s spending board approved a contract extension with the vendor that did not account for higher costs.
The city’s purchasing agent told the inspector general that he did not recall receiving the vendor’s emails requesting a price increase. The report also states the vendor sent two emails to the city’s Bureau of Procurement after the contract was approved inquiring about the request, but never heard back.
By mistake, the city proceeded to pay at the higher rate through March 2022. After flagging the discrepancy in the price, the city stopped completing payments to the vendor, according to the report, accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
In response to the paused chemical shipments, the Department of Public Works requested an emergency six-month contract with the vendor. The emergency contract was approved in June with authorization of the elevated chemical costs, and the city paid off most of its overdue bills to the company.
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming recommended the city develop standard procedures for handling vendor disputes and suggested that agencies ensure better communication to prevent interruptions in vendor services, particularly those with ramifications for public health.
Department of Finance Director Michael Moiseyev and Department of Public Works Director Jason Mitchell told the inspector general in a joint letter that the city is developing standard operating procedures and instructing personnel on how to manage vendor payments during pricing disputes.
Issues with Baltimore’s spending and purchasing have compounded in recent years and led to delays in everything from construction to rent relief to services provided by local nonprofits.