City and State Officials Continue Searching for the Cause of Last Week’s E. Coli Contamination of Baltimore’s Water

A public health expert says the root cause is decades of disinvestment in the city’s water infrastructure, leaving one 74-year-old in West Baltimore afraid to drink from the tap. “I’m still boiling water,” she says.

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, Maryland. The City of Baltimore issued a boil water advisory to over 1500 residential and commercial facilities in West Baltimore after E. coli bacteria was found in drinking water. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Ianthia Darden said she was not ready to drink water out of the tap just yet. “I’m doing so out of the abundance of caution,” the 74-year-old resident of West Baltimore’s predominantly Black Harlem Park area said on Wednesday afternoon, adding that she has used tap water for other things like washing clothes. 

“I’m still boiling water to do the dishes and using the leftover bottled water that the city gave out last week,” she said. “So, no, I’m not drinking it yet.” 

Darden is one of many West Baltimoreans still reeling from last week’s E. coli contamination in the drinking water system, which mostly hit the city’s underserved west side areas. 

E. coli, or Escherichia coli bacteria, live in the intestines of people and animals and can cause diarrhea or illness. The types of E. coli that can cause diarrhea can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or persons.  

The authorities issued a boil water advisory on Labor Day and lifted it the following Friday after declaring that their testing showed that the water was free of contaminants. The city Department of Public Works and Maryland Department of the Environment have yet to find the cause. 

“I find it alarming that they still haven’t located the cause of contamination,” said Angela Haren, senior attorney and director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance. She said that the city’s wastewater system, which is managed by the Department of Public Works, has witnessed catastrophic failures in previous months, resulting in sewage discharges well beyond permitted limits. 

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Haren is the lead counsel in an ongoing suit against Baltimore for excessive pollution and ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act by its two wastewater treatment facilities, Patapsco and Back River Wastewater Treatment Plants, the largest in the state. “The reality is that it’s the same agency and the same city that’s managing the drinking water system, which is showing similar signs of stress and neglect as the wastewater system,” she said.

This incident makes it even more important for the city to put up signage and public warnings about the risk of E. coli contamination or bacteria contamination, Haren said.  

Baltimore is hardly alone in facing infrastructure problems related to drinking water. “All across the U.S., and specifically in Baltimore, these systems are aging and they need regular large investments to modernize and ensure that high quality water can be delivered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which is a huge task,” said Natalie Exum, assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. 

She said that more extreme weather events are putting additional stresses on aging public infrastructure, which will be tested in unprecedented ways. “It shows you that there are vulnerabilities in the system that we need to invest in detecting and continue to be vigilant on because the health of our communities depends on it.”

So far the Baltimore City Health Department has not reported an uptick in acute gastrointestinal illnesses as a result of last week’s E. Coli contamination, Exum added. “So, this is most likely a leak event or a pressure change within the distribution network that caused contamination within a localized area of West Baltimore.”

For Darden, residents are still vulnerable and can fall sick because the city authorities were late in getting an early word out to the communities. “I saw the firefighters emptying hydrants on Sunday afternoon,” she said, adding that she went out to ask about it and was told about the water contamination. 

“The city notified the residents on Monday morning when people had already cooked dinner, brushed their teeth, and went to bed showered,” she said. 

She wondered who would be responsible for the medical expenses if residents developed symptoms in the next few days and said that the mayor’s announcement that the city would take 25 percent off the next month’s water bill was inadequate. 

Monica Lewis, senior director of communications for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said that the Maryland Department of the Environment requires that communications go out within 24 hours of a second sample coming back positive for E. coli contamination. 

“We definitely had a response that we believe was able to provide the support to those who need it. But we will look over this process and see what happened and where we can make necessary enhancements for future incidents,” she said. 

The city Department of Public Works was looking into a number of factors that may have caused the contamination, Lewis said, adding that no conclusive determination had been reached.

Baltimore is the latest addition to a growing list of cities across the U.S. that have faced drinking water crises in the past several months because of groundwater contamination, aging infrastructure, or some combination of the two, made worse by climate severities. 

In early September, heavy rainfall in Jackson, Mississippi, caused high levels of flooding, which damaged a water treatment plant that led to a clean water shortage for the city’s residents. Attributing the crisis to “years-long issues,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that the city will not be able to meet its critical needs, such as putting out fires and flushing toilets, and warned that residents will not have reliable running water until the problem is fixed. Most of Jackson’s 150,000 residents remain under a boil water advisory issued July 29.

In early August, persistent drought conditions compelled Gov. Greg Abbott to declare several counties in South Texas as disaster areas. The prolonged dry spell is causing water reservoirs to dry up, which threatens the water supply to millions of Texans and creates challenges for growers and crops. 

The Biden administration has been criticized by environmental advocates for falling short on implementing its Justice40 initiative, which requires federal agencies to ensure that 40 percent of federal spending on climate, clean energy and related projects go to underserved and overburdened communities.

The present drinking water crises across several American cities also poses an immediate challenge to the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Administration officials said the legislation contained historic federal investments to improve and repair the nation’s aging infrastructure, including systems necessary to provide clean drinking water. 

Perched on the steps outside her single story house, Darden, a West Baltimorean born and raised, said she was worried about the skyrocketing water bills. “I’m especially concerned about the retirees and the elderly who make no money. How are they going to pay thousands of dollars in water bills and then this problem on top of that?” she asked.

Chesapeake Legal Alliance’s Haren said the reason for those increases is decades of disinvestment and neglect in maintaining water infrastructure. “What we’re literally paying for, financially and otherwise, is the neglect of those generations that came before us and of the political decisions that were made decades ago.” 


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She said that the delayed maintenance and neglect has spiraled into a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that’s resulting in a number of challenges, such as failing wastewater treatment facilities, and inadequate stormwater management.  

“Baltimore is a classic example of lack of investment in infrastructure and climate extremes. And it’s a story that’s now been told too many times whether it’s Mississippi, Chicago or Flint, Michigan, and we see time and again that we are living in a climate for which our infrastructure is no longer equipped to handle,” said Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of The Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

He said that in some cases, the infrastructure was about to collapse, even without the effects of climate change. “It seems like that was the case in Baltimore,” he said.  

Bernstein said that while it is also important to recognize that climate change doesn’t care whether you’re poor or rich, “there’s no question that maintenance of infrastructure, power, water and parks are often associated strongly with wealth of the community, and wealth is often tied to race in this country, and in no small part.” 

Take, for instance, home ownership, which he said is the largest contributor to wealth for most Americans. “We had laws in this country for decades that systematically said if you were a person of color, you would have to pay more for a mortgage if you could get one at all.” The laws no longer allow for that, Bernstein said, but that doesn’t mean the consequences of those laws and policies are no longer with us.

People are rightfully skeptical, and in some cases cynical, about the federal funds not going to communities that are meant to receive it because of a history of the federal government’s actions and ways of doing things, he said. “There are some places where we have every reason to be concerned that funds will not necessarily be used in ways that environmental justice communities would want,” Bernstein said. “We need to make sure that those communities’ voices are heard and that’s the point in this journey we’re at.”