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Fearing E. coli, west Baltimore boils water in latest crisis


Water bills in Baltimore have increased by 500 percent in the last two decades because of the rising cost of infrastructure maintenance and a decrease in federal funding, according to a July report.

By Amanda Holpuch


More than 1,500 West Baltimore homes and businesses have been under a boil-water advisory since Monday after the detection of E. coli bacteria in water supply samples over the weekend. It is the latest crisis affecting American access to safe water.


Officials had not identified the source of the contamination or revealed the results of efforts to flush the city’s water supply as of Wednesday afternoon.


Over the past four weeks, hundreds of thousands of Americans temporarily lost access to safe drinking water. In Jackson, Mississippi, more than 150,000 residents were without access to safe drinking water for a week until water pressure was restored Monday.


In Baltimore, the Department of Public Works issued a required boil-water advisory after it detected E. coli in water samples taken at three locations in the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods during routine testing Friday. The department also issued a precautionary boil-water advisory for large parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County.


People in the advisory areas were told to boil tap water for more than one minute before using it for activities such as drinking, preparing baby formula and washing dishes.


Baltimore City Public Schools said Tuesday that the district would be using bottled water for drinking and food preparation after dozens of schools were affected by the advisories.


E. coli bacteria can be found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals. Most people with infections start to feel sick three to four days after eating or drinking something that contains the bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


The director of the city’s department of public works, Jason Mitchell, said at a news conference Monday that the city was identifying construction projects that could have affected the water supply, searching for leaks and checking chlorine levels in the water. “We are confident that these positive test results are not associated with our three wastewater treatment plants,” Mitchell said.


The city was distributing up to 3 gallons of bottled water per household Wednesday at three locations. Community groups also organized water distribution, including deliveries for people with limited mobility.


Tyler Alcorn, a community activist who plans to run for mayor in 2024, said he was distributing bottled water to his neighbors in the Franklin Square area, which borders a neighborhood where the E. coli contamination was detected. “I have spoken to several people who said, ‘I didn’t know this is happening,’ ” Alcorn, 26, said.


Alcorn said he and his partner were boiling water for themselves and collecting bottled water for their neighbors, many of whom he said were older and unable to go to the distribution sites. He said he was concerned about what would happen if people were sickened by the E. coli contamination, especially because many of the people he spoke with were unaware that a water advisory was in place.


“There has been no mobilization of health care resources or any type of plan in place that will enable people to seek medical attention in a streamlined process,” he said.


Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, and the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, said the problem stemmed from the lack of investment in the city’s water infrastructure over several decades.


Water bills in Baltimore increased by 500% in the past two decades because of the rising cost of infrastructure maintenance and decreasing federal funding, according to a report released in July by the Maryland advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


In the same time period, the city’s median household income has only increased by 60%, the report said. Baltimore’s low-income, majority Black neighborhoods have been disproportionately affected by the divestment and failing infrastructure.


“It’s not a coincidence that this is happening in predominantly Black cities like Jackson and Baltimore and Flint,” Eckel said.


In New York, residents of a public housing complex have been advised to avoid drinking tap water since Friday after elevated levels of arsenic were found in a water sample. In Michigan last month, more than 130,000 people were under a boil-water advisory for a little more than a day after a break in a water main.


Across the country, water is becoming less affordable because of infrastructure costs, a decrease in funding and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events that put stress on water systems. The infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November directs $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water over five years. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018 that $472.6 billion would be needed in the next 20 years for drinking water infrastructure.


“Because of the neglect of the federal government to reinvest in our water systems and make sure that communities can have safe drinking water, we’re going to continue to see crises like Jackson and Baltimore on varying scales across the country,” Eckel said.

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