The Power of One: How One Concerned Citizen Brought the Jones Falls Fish Kill to Light

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Click here to watch and hear Todd’s story on Youtube.

On a Sunday morning in September, Todd Evans was taking his dog Rue on a walk along the Jones Falls Bike Trail near the Woodberry Woods. As Rue sniffed around the trails’ edge, something caught his eye in the water below. A thick layer of foam had developed on the rapids and the air stank of vinegar. Todd ventured closer to the stream to get a better look. Upon reaching the rapids he saw hundreds of fish of all sizes floating belly up.

“I started to see smaller fish swimming up from under rocks, gasping for air by the surface…It was kind of hard to watch because there were a lot of fish struggling and a lot of fish were already dead”

As Todd investigated the stream firsthand, he also noticed that much of the algae had turned a greyish color, appearing to be bleached. That’s when Todd decided to call Blue Water Baltimore. Something fishy was going on and he knew he couldn’t stay silent.

Our Waterkeeper team arrived within the hour. Once we canvassed the area it became clear that over a thousand fish were affected. Our initial water quality tests upstream of the Poly-Western baseball fields were all normal, so we knew the problem was likely coming from an area closer to Cold Spring Lane. We put on our waders and walked in the stream until we found it – a stormwater outfall discharging acid so strong, it had eroded away the surrounding concrete wall.

Whatever substance was discharged killed everything ranging from crayfish to American Eels— an endangered species. Due to the nature of the aquatic life affected we informed the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). MDE’s investigations pointed to Fleischmann’s Vinegar Co. as the official source of pollution. To this day, we are working with officials to ensure that the pollution stops flowing into the Jones Falls, and that Fleischmann’s is held accountable.

“I kind of wonder, is this something that’s been happening more than just this one time?” 

To fulfill its watchdog role, our Waterkeeper team regularly patrols Baltimore’s streams, rivers, and Harbor to seek out and stop pollution entering our waterways.  Last week we returned to this polluted outfall to follow up on the case, and we found evidence that acid is still flowing into the stream.  We will continue to monitor this area, press for answers, and work to hold the responsible parties accountable while the agencies bring this facility back into compliance with the terms of its permit.

Fleischmann’s isn’t the first to pollute the Jones Falls and they probably won’t be the last. Cases like this are a stark reminder of the fragile state of our waterways. In the absence of sufficient monitoring, reporting, and enforcement we cannot expect the state of our waterways to improve. A word of advice from Todd: If you see something that looks a bit strange, go ahead and report it if you can.

“Looking back, I’m really glad that when I saw something that looked a little bit strange I didn’t just walk on by” 

Despite the fish kill Todd was hopeful that one day his local stream could be clean enough for swimming purposes. “How great would it be if we had swimming holes right here in the city that we could go and swim in? That would be so awesome” says Todd. It’s a vision we share, but we’re just not there yet. There are many threats to water quality and Blue Water Baltimore is fighting everyday to protect the water we love. But we can’t do this alone. We need your help, and luckily there are many ways to support our work.

You can help us protect the water you love by donating, funding a need, or reporting pollution in your own neighborhood.

Together we can make a real difference.

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