Three months before the outbreak of E. coli last month, the 1.8 million customers of Baltimore’s water system narrowly escaped “an emergency health crisis” due to the city’s failure to pay a utility bill.
Last June, the municipal water system reached a “critical” level of a chemical used to prevent drinking water from absorbing lead, copper and other contaminants as it passes through the pipes. the city’s aging water supply, Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said in a summary report released today. .
“Had the supply of water treatment chemicals been depleted,” she wrote, “an emergency health crisis would have ensued,” citing an official who compared the incident to Flint, in Michigan, where corrosion of water pipes allowed lead to seep into the municipal water supply. , disgusting families and especially children.
A public works supervisor in Baltimore pleaded with the vendor for an extension as the city was two days away from running out of critical material, the report noted.
Baltimore’s close call with unsafe and potentially unsafe water has never been publicly disclosed by the Department of Public Works, which owns the system, or Mayor Brandon Scott, who repeatedly cites its transparency policy .
Both have been criticized by city council members for delaying and downplaying high readings from E. coli found over Labor Day weekend at three water testing sites in West Baltimore.
DPW Director Jason Mitchell blamed fecal contamination on aging infrastructure, also noting that the precise cause may never be found.
But Cumming’s report says bureaucratic inertia at three city agencies — Public Works, Office of Purchasing and Office of Accounting and Payroll Services — posed a far greater threat to public health.
The underlying cause was the failure of the purchasing office to act on a supplier’s request for a price increase before the contract was renewed last December by the Estimates Board.
(The report does not name the supplier, but The drink identified the company as Greer Industries of Morgantown, WV., which supplies calcium oxide or quicklime to processing plants. The company could not be reached for comment today.)
“The OIG investigation revealed that the vendor never received a response to these emails,” Cumming wrote. “The BOP Procurement Specialist advised OIG that he had not received or reviewed a price increase request from the vendor.”
Keasha Brown, the city’s acting buying officer, also said she didn’t recall reading the seller’s emails with the price escalation letter attached.
On May 11, the vendor informed both a water office supervisor and a payroll officer that after months of no response and faced with $77,000 in overdue invoices, the company would “suspend” chemical deliveries.
For about two weeks, the supplier followed through on its threat, and the city’s chemical supply at its three treatment plants reached an unsafe level – OIG report.
For about two weeks, the supplier carried out the threat and the city’s on-site supply of the chemical at its three treatment plants – Montebello 1, Montebello 2 and Ashburton – “reached an extremely low level”.
“On June 8, the DPW supervisor requested an extension to make payment because Montebello Plant 1 would run out of water treatment chemicals without delivery by June 10,” the report said.
“The seller has agreed to deliver the water treatment chemical, but said it must receive a minimum payment of $43,834.70 by June 13, 2022.”
Last minute emergency payment
On deadline day, now-retired finance department manager Henry Raymond granted an emergency supply request for a six-month contract extension with the supplier. The department used its supply credit card to pay most outstanding invoices.
On July 22, Keasha Brown signed the emergency contract, which granted the seller’s price increase from August 1 to the end of 2022.
OIG investigators found emails in 2021 and early 2022 from the supplier asking for the price increase, but no evidence that supply ever responded to or approved of the increase.
At the same time, the city made payments to Greer reflecting his asking price increase (even though its global payments to the company were overdue). Cumming later determined that the finance department had overpaid the price increase of $4,685.65.
The city “reviews the process”
In response to the report, DPW director Mitchell and new chief financial officer Michael Moiseyev said they agreed with the OIG’s findings.
(Created to root out waste, fraud and inefficiency, the OIG can only report its findings to Mayor Scott and the agency’s trustees – and they have the power to decide what action to take, the optionally.)
In this case, no repercussions were reported to the staff, only a promise to do better next time.
Moiseyev said his office will “develop standard operating procedures instructing staff on handling vendor invoices during price disputes,” while procurement “reviews the process for contacting vendors during contract renewals. and will work with the Legal Department to review existing contractual language regarding timing when vendors must submit price escalation requests.”
For DPW, Mitchell said a new “head of internal operations” has been hired to help improve communications with suppliers.
The agency will “further escalate its requirements with the Ministry of Finance to ensure timely resolution of issues related to procurement and payments, as noted in the report.”
Mitchell and Moiseyev, in their response, made no mention of the public health implications of the incident.