Warning pushes water sales up

Public works says flow was redirected

little danger existed

February 22, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A water quality advisory issued Sunday for several Baltimore neighborhoods was lifted yesterday afternoon, but not before residents flocked to stores and snatched up gallons of bottled water.

Grocery stores in Hampden, Roland Park and Charles Village reported the rush on water was equivalent to Y2K preparations in the days leading to New Year's Eve.

"The water shelf has been blown out -- empty," said Jim Staines, manager of the Super Fresh store in the 1000 block of 41st St.

Union Memorial Hospital resorted to its unused Y2K water supply when it learned of the water advisory, said hospital spokeswoman Amy Strong. When that ran low, Strong said the hospital trucked in "dozens and dozens" of cases of bottled water and ice.

Like Y2K, the fear was worse than reality.

The scare began about noon Sunday, when 1.5 million gallons of drinking water was not properly filtered at Ashburton Water Filtration Plant on Druid Park Drive.

Department of Public Works officials, concerned about possible contamination by microbes, recommended that people who live in an area bounded by Falls Road to the west, Cold Spring Lane to the north, Hillen Road to the east and Monument Street to the south boil their drinking water.

Officials said Sunday night that people with weak immune systems could experience diarrhea, cramps, headaches, fatigue, nausea or jaundice if they drank the water.

The problem was caused by a sudden increase in water levels at one of the 20 Ashburton filtration facilities.

The water, which comes from Liberty Reservoir, gushed into a cleansing pump faster than it could be filtered.

Because it was not filtered, the water was found to violate the turbidity standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Turbidity is a measure of water cloudiness.

"The water levels in the plant were low, and then it raised and it raised, stirring up sediments, and going above the filter line," said Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman.

After the malfunction, crews opened fire hydrants in the affected neighborhoods to disperse the unfiltered water. But Kocher said the precautions were not necessary because fast-acting plant crews successfully diverted the water into Lake Ashburton before it traveled into the public water supply.

Public works officials provided documentation and mapping data to the Maryland Department of the Environment yesterday afternoon to show that unfiltered water never reached homes or businesses. The Department of the Environment permitted the city to lift its water advisory at 4 p.m.

Kocher said yesterday that initial Public Works Department warnings of potential illness and contamination were too extreme.

"It comes from Liberty Reservoir if you scooped up that water in your hand from there you would think it is 100 percent clean, pure and natural," Kocher said. "This water was clean when it came to the [Ashburton filtration] plant and had already gone through a number of steps to make it cleaner, but as it was about to be cleaned again it overflowed."

Most residents and businesses heeded initial warnings, however.

At Donna's restaurant on St. Paul Street in Charles Village, employees sold 25 bottles of water instead of the normal 10.

Up the street, at Eddie's Super Market, manager Howard Glazer said he sold more bottled water yesterday than he does on a normal summer day, leaving shelves bare.

Staines, from Super Fresh, said he didn't know how long the "water crisis" was going to last so he ordered 13,000 gallons of water yesterday morning.

Sharon Brothers, a cashier at Orient Express restaurant in Charles Village, said she was boiling water all day to help the kitchen staff safely wash dishes and vegetables.

"It's a real pain, it takes so much longer to do anything," Brothers said. "It's a little frustrating, too."

Customer Cassandra Orem ordered ribs and fried rice from the restaurant yesterday so she wouldn't have to deal with boiling water at home. She had been boiling and disinfecting water for her dog and four cats.

"There had to be a better way to let folks know what's going on," said Orem, who did not learn of the advisory until late Sunday night. "Once upon a time, people would go around with foghorns to tell people something like this."

Down the street at Rocky Run Tap & Grill, bartender Jennifer Moran said she heard the news at 10 p.m. Sunday when someone from the health department stopped by to tell her.

"I said, `What about the four glasses of water I just served?' "

Sun staff writer Allison Klein and contributing writer Nora Koch provided information for this article.

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