Baltimore’s supply of a chemical necessary to treat the city’s drinking water was seriously reduced earlier this year as a result of a dispute between the city and a vendor, putting the city’s drinking water at risk of becoming unsafe to drink, according to a Tuesday report from the city’s inspector general.
According to the report, an unnamed vendor threatened to halt deliveries of an unspecified water treatment chemical to the city in June due to a dispute over a proposed price increase. At the time, the city of Baltimore owed more than $77,000 to the company in unpaid bills, according to the report.
As a result, the city’s water went untreated, but chemical treatment supplies were disrupted for about two weeks, causing supplies to drop at the city’s Montebello I and II stations, according to the report. The report stated that the chemical is necessary to prevent corrosive water from dissolving lead and copper from water pipes and household plumbing.
“If the chemical supply for water treatment was exhausted, the Office of the Inspector General knew that an emergency health crisis would arise for the city’s residents,” Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming wrote.
The report notes that the dispute between the seller, who is not named in the report, and the city dates back to November 2021. That’s when the seller emailed the city’s purchasing agent and requested a price increase of $10.89 per unit. The city’s purchasing agent said he had no recollection of receiving that email, according to the report. The Baltimore Estimates Board approved an extension of the contract with the company at the current rate in December 2021 on the recommendation of the Department of Public Works and the Office of Procurement.
Estimates board meeting minutes on December 22 show that the city extended a contract with Baltimore-based USALCO LLC through July to supply the water treatment chemical aluminum sulfate. When added to water, aluminum sulfate causes the impurities to clump together into larger particles so that they can be filtered out of the water, making it safe to drink.
A representative from USALCO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Also in December, the seller began submitting invoices to the city at the increased price. The inspector general found that the city paid the seller the highest error rate during the month of March before the payments were halted.
In June, the seller told city officials that “timely payment” is required to avoid shipping delays. On June 8, the DPW supervisor requested a payment to the seller stating that the Montebello I plant would run out of the chemical without delivery on June 10, according to the report. The seller agreed to deliver the chemical, but said a payment of at least $43,834 should have been received by June 13.
The water system treatment manager alerted officials within the department at the time, saying that if the city didn’t pay the bill, it could experience pollution similar to what happened in Flint, Michigan in 2014, according to the report.
The report found that the Department of Public Works had approved an emergency procurement request on June 13, and most of the invoices owed to the seller had been paid. An emergency contract that included a price increase was signed in July, and is valid until January.
The DPW supervisor said deliveries of the chemical were halted for about two weeks, causing supply at Montebello I and II plants to reach “a very low level compared to the amount normally stored on site,” according to the report.
In its report, Cumming recommended Baltimore review its process for contacting vendors to avoid future miscommunication. The inspector general also recommended establishing standard operating procedures for pricing disputes with vendors and improving interagency communications to avoid service interruptions, “specifically those that have public health implications.”
In a joint response to the report, Jason Mitchell, director of the city’s Department of Public Works, and Michael Moiseyev, director of finance, said the city is working on standard operating procedures for price disputes as well as new contract language that specifies when sellers must request a price increase.