E. coli in Baltimore water is attributed to aging infrastructure

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Baltimore city officials said this week that problems related 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, said Timothy Wolfe, head of the city’s Bureau of Engineering and Construction Department public works said in an interview on Friday.

City officials first shared the findings publicly Thursday at the second of two city council hearings devoted to the contamination, which led to a five-day advisory on boiling water for West Baltimore and parts of Baltimore County in September, at which Volunteers and city employees were forced to flee to meet the basic needs of residents in the summer heat.

The presence of E. coli bacteria suggested the water might have been contaminated by human or animal feces, officials said at the time. No diseases have been linked to the contaminated water, city spokeswoman Monica Lewis said on Friday.

For years, residents and environmental justice advocates have criticized the inaction on infrastructure improvements needed to protect Baltimore’s water quality. They say financial inequalities leave cash-strapped cities with no choice but to respond to problems they would rather prevent.

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

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

Bullock said he is confident that Wes Moore, the Democrat running for governor, will prioritize West Baltimore if elected. But federal infrastructure funding will also be needed to permanently improve the city’s water treatment and collection system, Bullock said.

“Hopefully some of that money goes to Baltimore because we’re one of the oldest cities in the country,” he said.

The emergency overlapped with a crisis in Jackson, Miss., where 150,000 residents lacked safe drinking water, in part due to a failed water treatment plant, drawing renewed attention to weaknesses in water infrastructure across the country.

Problems with Baltimore’s water system were exacerbated this summer, according to workers had to do valve repairs on a downtown Baltimore water line up to 60 inches in diameter that was installed in 1915, Wolfe said. Around the same time, on the weekend of July 4, a sinkhole opened when rainwater flooded 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 installed in 1925 needed repairs, which could have compromised an earthen dam that held a large water reservoir vital to supplying residents with drinking water, he said. Rather than jeopardize the safety of workers 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 at another reservoir upset the pressure balance throughout the system, which could alter residual chlorine — the city’s defense against bacteria, he said.

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

“More money for the city — or any city that size — is very helpful,” he said.

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