The Washington Post

Baltimore water woes run deeper than E. coli

Ongoing boil advisory puts focus on addressing neglect of infrastruc­ture

- BY JENNA PORTNOY

As public works officials on Tuesday continued probing how West Baltimore’s water supply became contaminat­ed, the city’s elected officials and activists called for improvemen­ts to Baltimore’s aging water and wastewater infrastruc­ture.

Parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties remained under a boil-water advisory after officials found E. coli bacteria in samples taken from the Sandtown-winchester and Harlem Park communitie­s during routine testing Friday.

The city’s Department of Public Works is trying to find the source of the contaminat­ion and is flushing the system continuous­ly to replenish water supplies, as well as increasing chlorinati­on in the affected area, according to a statement. The agency said that the problem does not stem from wastewater treatment or water treatment plants, which officials said are operating up to code.

Neglect of infrastruc­ture over decades has forced cities like Baltimore to react to water issues rather than make improvemen­ts that could head off larger problems, advocates said. In Jackson, Miss., 150,000 residents are without safe drinking water, indefinite­ly, in part because of severe flooding that caused a water treatment plant to fail amid inadequate infrastruc­ture.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said in a tweet late Monday that he received a briefing on the contaminat­ion from the state Department of the Environmen­t, which is assisting Baltimore City officials.

Staff members for Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) said in response to questions Tuesday that the city Health Department has not received reports of related illnesses, but they cautioned that it could take time for symptoms to appear.

The cost of maintenanc­e, repairs and environmen­tal improvemen­ts to city systems as federal funding decreased caused customers’ water bills to increase 500 percent over the past 20 years, said Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-baltimore City), who represents the north-central portion of the community. The city’s median household income rose about 60 percent during that time, according to a recent report

on water affordabil­ity.

“It’s a problem that’s been waiting to happen and now we have to figure out how to contain it,” Washington said in an interview Tuesday.

In majority-black Baltimore, the disproport­ionate impact of the costs makes water affordabil­ity an environmen­tal justice issue, she said.

Rianna Eckel, a Baltimore water organizer with Food and Water Watch, said that although water generally has been safe and clean in the city, rising costs mean more people cannot manage their water bills, putting the burden of paying for service and improvemen­ts on fewer ratepayers.

“Systemic racism and redlining has put people at a disadvanta­ge and is magnifying the impact of the disinvestm­ent in our water system, because Black and Brown families are facing the worst impacts of this,” she said.

The Department of Public Works referred questions to a spokeswoma­n for Scott, who did not answer queries about what improvemen­ts to infrastruc­ture the mayor thinks are needed.

Although E. coli was detected only in samples taken from West Baltimore locations, the city expanded the boil-water advisory to parts of Baltimore and Howard counties as a precaution. The affected southweste­rn Baltimore County neighborho­ods include Arbutus, Halethorpe and Lansdowne.

The city issued a map of the affected area. (An early version of the map included Anne Arundel County, but city officials later said the city system does not supply Anne Arundel’s water.)

In West Baltimore alone, about 1,500 homes and businesses — from Riggs Avenue to the north, Casey Street to the east, West Franklin Street to the south and Pulaski Street to the west — are affected.

Residents under a boil-water advisory must use bottled or boiled water for drinking, preparing and cooking food, and brushing teeth. This includes washing fruits and vegetables, making ice, mixing baby formula and washing dishes. Small children should be given sponge baths to help them avoid swallowing water.

The presence of E. coli bacteria indicates the water may have been contaminat­ed by human or animal feces. The bacteria can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea and headaches, and may pose greater health risks for infants, young children, the elderly and people with severely compromise­d immune systems, according to the city.

The Department of Public Works on Tuesday began distributi­ng water in three locations — Harlem Park Elementary/middle School, 1401 W. Lafayette Ave.; Middle Branch Park, 3301 Waterview Ave.; and Lansdowne Library, 500 Third Ave. — with a limit of three gallons per household, the agency tweeted.

Baltimore County officials are working on a plan to purchase and distribute water in addition to the locations set up by the city.

Baltimore County Public Schools provides bottled water to students and staff, and meals will be prepared in facilities outside the affected area.

Baltimore City Council member John T. Bullock, who represents a West Baltimore neighborho­od affected by the advisory, said that although no one has been sickened by the water he has heard from constituen­ts concerned about lagging communicat­ion of the boil-water advisory.

He said that the city tested the water again Monday and should have results by Wednesday but that in the long term, more funding is needed to upgrade the city’s water infrastruc­ture.

“Looking at our facilities,” he said, “additional resources locally, assistance from the state, that could be helpful, too.”

 ?? Drew Angerer/getty IMAGES ?? Residents pick up water at the Lansdowne branch of the Baltimore County Library, one of three sites serving as distributi­on centers during the boil-water advisory related to detection of E. coli bacteria in the West Baltimore water supply.
Drew Angerer/getty IMAGES Residents pick up water at the Lansdowne branch of the Baltimore County Library, one of three sites serving as distributi­on centers during the boil-water advisory related to detection of E. coli bacteria in the West Baltimore water supply.

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