Despite One Violation, Annual Report from DPW Says Baltimore’s Drinking Water is ‘Excellent’

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Photo by Ángelo González

Officials say Baltimore’s drinking water is in good working order in a new annual report.

In 2016, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works performed more than 150,000 analyses of drinking water in the city. The tests gathered data on more than 90 components, from microbiological contaminants like E. coli, turbidity (or the visual clarity of the water) and inorganic materials like nitrates and barium to concentrations of the additive fluoride and radioactive contaminants, among other materials.

Speaking by phone, DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher said the tests showed the city once again achieved high marks for drinking-water quality from past years.

“Basically what it comes down to is we’ve got great drinking water,” he said. “We don’t have lead pipes in our system. So the water quality is among the best in the country, and has been for decades.”

Tests for lead and copper in the city’s drinking water were performed in 2015 and aren’t required again until 2018. The 2015 tests showed the city met federal compliance standards, though excessive amounts of lead — defined as higher than 15 parts per billion — were detected in two out of 52 water samples.

This year, DPW found all but one of its tests showed the city’s drinking water meets federal standards. The one violation was for concentrations of haloacetic acids — that is, organic disinfection byproducts formed when chlorine interacts with organic material during the water treatment process.

That happened during a test in January 2016 at the city’s Montebello plants, according to the report. The highest level detected in running water on average in that case was 63 parts per billion, three ppb higher than the federal maximum standard.

Studies have shown that haloacetic acids (abbreviated as HAA5) are linked to increased risks of cancer over long periods of time. However, Kocher said this was an isolated case and isn’t a major cause for concern.

“I believe that was a little excessive chlorine was in the water for a small area – it really didn’t have any impact on anybody,” he said.

In previous cases where HAA5 levels were found to be excessive, the city has sent warning letters to residents. Kocher said he would check on whether the city informed residents of the January test results. A search of DPW’s releases page brings up notices from 2013, 2015 and May 2016, but nothing from the Montebello plants.

He noted the city is working on ways to improve residents’ drinking water, including by replacing water mains, which reduces the potential for service disruptions.

DPW’s annual report says the city stores its drinking water in tanks as well as outdoor reservoirs, some of which are uncovered. Outdoor reservoirs risk contamination by animals or other wildlife, and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires agencies take measures to protect them from environmental contaminants, according to the department.

The city is converting one of its three uncovered outdoor reservoirs in Guilford to an underground storage system. The two others at Druid Lake and Ashburton will remain as lakes, but the water in them won’t be used for drinking. “Buried tanks will serve that purpose,” the report says.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Associate Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan is Baltimore Fishbowl's associate editor. He previously covered Baltimore-area news as a web producer for Fox45/WBFF-TV. Before arriving in Baltimore, he worked as an assistant editor for CQ Researcher in Washington D.C., and a reporter for Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Look for his freelance bylines in Baltimore City Paper and DCist.
Ethan McLeod
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