Baltimore city's 1.8 million water-system customers will be getting some extra paper stuffed into their utility bill mailings this month — a notice that the city has violated federal drinking-water safety regulations.
The violation is more of the late-homework variety than a real water-quality problem, say city, state and federal officials. The city missed a longstanding deadline last year for spelling out new steps it's taking at the federal government's direction to safeguard the water supply from disease-causing contaminants.
"It's the same drinking water, going through the same process," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works. "We're meeting all the EPA requirements, so nothing has changed. … These are new requirements. We have to meet the new requirements."
Water systems nationwide have been on notice since 2006 that they had to either cover or provide additional treatment of any open reservoirs of treated drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the action to keep public drinking water from being tainted with Cryptosporidium or other pathogens that might make people sick if consumed.
The city plans to replace three of its finished-water reservoirs with huge storage tanks, while installing new treatment plants at two other large impoundments: Druid Hill Lake and Lake Ashburton in West Baltimore.
But city officials didn't get state and federal approval of the plan in time for the April 1, 2009 deadline set by the EPA; hence the violation. The approval was prolonged by discussions between state and federal environmental officials, city spokespeople said. Vicky Binetti, associate director of water protection in the EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia, characterized it as a "negotiation" with the state. A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment didn't respond to a question about the approval timing, stressing only that it didn't involve the water quality.
There is no fine imposed on the city, unless it fails to meet its schedule for overhauling the reservoirs, the last of which must be completed by 2018. But as punishment for missing the deadline, the city is required to notify the public of its tardiness, which it's doing by placing an advertisement in Wednesday's Baltimore Sun and in bill mailings going out starting Aug. 16. The notice is part of the annual drinking water quality report.
Work is under way on the reservoirs, which Kocher estimated would cost the city and Baltimore County $200 million in all — an expense that is being paid through a 9 percent annual increase in water rates, the spokesman said.
Two smaller impoundments in Baltimore County have had tanks installed, while excavation is under way to replace a six-acre finished-water pond on Hillen Road, near Lake Montebello in Northeast Baltimore. Lakes in Towson and Guilford also are set for enclosure.
The large lake at Druid Hill Park and Lake Ashburton will not be enclosed because they are so large and such fixtures in the neighborhood landscape, explained city public-works spokeswoman Celeste Amato.
"Covering the reservoirs is not exactly popular with people who live there," said Amato.
Those two impoundments will get treatment plants instead that will subject their water — already filtered and chlorinated once — to a second round of treatment before it is piped to taps around the city. The water will get another dose of chlorine and be exposed to ultraviolet light to kill any residual bacteria or pathogens.
There were seven reported illnesses from Cryptosporidium last year, and 20 in 2008, according to Brian Schleter of the city health department. Kocher said city officials are unaware of any cases tied to public drinking water. Cryptosporidium is a protozoan parasite associated with animal waste that can cause diarrheal-type illness if consumed in contaminated water. Though not serious in healthy people, the disease can be fatal in individuals with compromised immune systems.
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