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Aging infrastructure to blame for E. coli bacteria in Baltimore water

Workers with the Baltimore City Department of Public Works distribute jugs of water to city residents at the Landsdowne Branch of the Baltimore County Library on Sept. 6, 2022 in Baltimore. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Baltimore city officials this week said problems due to aging infrastructure in the city’s water treatment system contributed to an E. coli contamination in September that left some city residents without drinking water for five days.

An unprecedented confluence of events in multiple areas of the city’s water system — which includes about 4,000 miles of pipe — reduced chlorine levels enough to trigger three positive tests for E. coli, Timothy Wolfe, chief of the office of engineering and construction for the city’s Department of Public Works, said in an interview Friday.

City officials shared the findings for the first time publicly Thursday at the second of two city council hearings devoted to the contamination, which prompted a five-day boil water advisory in September for West Baltimore and parts of Baltimore County, sending volunteers and city workers scrambling to meet residents’ basic needs in the summerlike heat.

The presence of E. coli bacteria indicated the water may have been contaminated by human or animal feces, officials said at the time. No illnesses were linked to the contaminated water, city spokeswoman Monica Lewis said Friday.

Residents and environmental justice advocates have for years decried inaction on infrastructural improvements needed to safeguard Baltimore’s water quality. They say funding inequities leave cash-strapped cities with no choice but to react to problems they would rather prevent.

Baltimore City Council member John T. Bullock, who represents parts of West Baltimore affected by the advisory, welcomed the results of the probe, which officials have been awaiting for weeks.

“We could always have more detailed information but the meeting was helpful in terms of what was happening with the reservoirs and treatment centers and where there may have been breakdowns in the infrastructure,” he said.

Bullock said he was confident Wes Moore, the Democrat running for governor, will prioritize West Baltimore, if elected. But federal infrastructure funding will also be necessary to make lasting upgrades in the city’s water treatment and collection system, Bullock said.

“Hopefully some of that money will make it’s way to Baltimore, because we are one of the oldest cities in the country,” he said.

The emergency overlapped with a crisis in Jackson, Miss., where 150,000 residents were without safe drinking water, partly due to a failing water treatment plant, focusing new attention on weaknesses in water infrastructure around the country.

The problems with Baltimore’s water system were exacerbated this summer after workers had to make valve repairs on a downtown Baltimore water main up to 60 inches in diameter, which was installed in 1915, Wolfe said. Around the same time, over July 4 weekend, a sinkhole opened when storm water overwhelmed a 115-year-old stone arch drain, forcing workers to shut down a 48-inch water main built in 1898.

In early February, another 48-inch water main, which was installed in 1925, needed repairs that could have compromised an earthen dam holding up a large water reservoir critical to providing residents drinking water, he said. Rather than risk worker safety and the integrity of a critical water supply, the pipeline was shut off. A $137 million project to replace the pipe system with underground storage tanks should be complete in early 2023, Wolfe said.

Adjustments needed to maintain water levels and safety in another reservoir upset the pressure balance in the entire system, allowing chlorine residuals — the city’s defense against bacteria — to change, he said.

Officials are accelerating a program to replace the city’s water mains, or, underground pipes, at the rate of 15 miles a year, but Wolfe said federal dollars could allow them to do more.

“More money to the city — or any city of this size — is very helpful,” he said.