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West Baltimore must boil water after E. coli finding

City workers in Baltimore deliver water for residents to the Lansdowne branch of the Baltimore County Library on Sept. 6.

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 on 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.

Living in a city with no water: ‘This is unbearable’

Staff members for Mayor Brandon M. Scott said in response to questions Tuesday that the city’s health department has not received reports of related illnesses, but they cautioned that it could take time for symptoms of contamination to emerge.

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.

Public Works referred questions to a spokeswoman for Scott, who did not answer questions about what improvements to infrastructure Scott 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 indicate the water may have been contaminated by human or animal feces. It 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.

Public Works on Tuesday began distributing water in three locations — 1401 W. Lafayette Ave., Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School; 3301 Waterview Ave., Middle Branch Park; and 500 Third Ave., Lansdowne Library — with a limit of three gallons per household, DPW 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 the city tested the water again Monday and should have results by Wednesday, but 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.”