After a concerned passerby noticed dead fish floating in the Jones Falls, Maryland environmental officials found water treatment issues at a vinegar plant upstream

Alice Volpitta was hiking in Oregon Ridge Park early Sunday when she got the call — a concerned citizen had noticed groups of dead fish floating in Baltimore’s Jones Falls and washing onto its banks.

And so Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore, hopped in her car and headed for the stream, her daughter and her husband in tow. Donning a pair of waders, she started to explore, and the signs were all over.


“The fish tend to congregate in — or they wash up in — certain areas of the stream,” she said. “That’s what you typically find in a fish kill in a stream like this. The one on Sunday that we saw? They were everywhere.”

By 3 p.m. Sunday, inspectors from the Maryland Department of the Environment visited the river, and confirmed the fish kill. They counted at least 160 dead suckerfish, wrote Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. More fish of other species may have perished as well, he said.


Environmental regulators say the kill could be tied to a water treatment issue at the nearby Fleischmann’s Vinegar Co. plant at 1900 Brand Ave. just off Cold Spring Avenue.

Inspectors who visited the plant just after 5 p.m. made a troubling discovery: Its dechlorination system was out of service.

That system is responsible for reducing chlorine levels in the tap water used to cool machines in the factory before it is released into the stream, according to a spokesman for Fleischmann’s.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Fleischmann’s had yet to receive an inspection report from MDE, a spokesman said. As a result, the spokesman declined to comment further on the situation.

The facility told MDE inspectors that its dechlorination system was back up and running at normal capacity Monday, Apperson said in an email. The department has requested water samples from the company to ensure the system is functioning properly, he added. Officials at the facility also told inspectors they were taking steps to reinstate a backup system, Apperson said. MDE is continuing to investigate the situation.

Inspectors who returned Monday to the Jones Falls saw “fish swimming within the waterway that abuts the plant, including crawfish and various finfish species that did not appear to be exhibiting stressed behavior,” Apperson wrote.

Because of its chlorine content, municipal tap water can present dangers to native wildlife, Volpitta said.

“We’ve seen from other cases that even just fresh, clean drinking water can also be toxic to the fish,” Volpitta said.


In late 2019, a water main break sent drinking water flowing into West Baltimore’s Dead Run, Volpitta said, contributing to a fish kill there.

But while on the scene Sunday, Volpitta said she also noticed an “overpowering” acidic stench, to the point that she had to cover her nose with her shirt.

A follow-up inspection from the Maryland Department of the Environment determined that the facility was discharging low pH water from a storm drain that officials did not know it was connected to. It also determined the facility was discharging hundreds of thousands of gallons more water than permitted, and that it failed to submit all of the necessary water sampling data. A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the results of the follow-up inspection, saying that the company was still reviewing the results.

The water flowing from one outfall near the kill had an acidic pH of 3.86, according to Blue Water measurements from Sunday. By comparison, normal drinking water has a pH around 7.

Water that acidic is likely to burn fish until it’s diluted by the fresh water downstream, leading to a “slow and painful death.”

“It’s like when you juice too many limes and your skin starts burning,” she said — only on a grand scale.


She called Sunday’s scene at Jones Falls “heartbreaking.”

After wading into the stream, Volpitta picked up one of the fallen eel, cradling it in gloved hands.

“I’m standing next to this stream, and my daughter is seeing American eel for the very first time — and it’s dead,” she said.

Upstream from the Fleischmann’s plant, the group didn’t find any more dead fish, Volpitta said.

Volpitta said she also worries about the impact extending beyond fish and into higher tiers on the stream’s food chain.

“What happens when a great blue heron comes and eats that dead eel?” she said.


This article was updated Sept. 27 to reflect the results of a follow-up inspection at the Fleischmann’s facility.