A Resident’s Pollution Report Leads to Quick Action by Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper

Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Alice Volpitta told this story live at Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s In Defense of Water event on October 6, 2021 at Patagonia Old Town.

Hello everybody, my name is Alice Volpitta. I am your Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and I am also a Mom. I have a three-year-old little girl named Audrey, and she’s been asking me all these weird questions lately. She’s three, so she’s just kind of figuring out the world and experiencing everything at the speed of light and not really knowing what to do with it. I’ve realized that all of these weird questions are about things that have already happened to her in her life, but she wants me to retell her stories about these events. She says things like, “Mama, tell me about when Julia threw a block at my eye and I started bleeding.” That was a particularly difficult day at preschool when she came home with a black eye. And then she asked me, “Mama, tell me about when I threw up in the gym.” And that was another difficult day in preschool. I realized that she’s asking me to tell her about things that have happened that are slightly traumatic – things that are difficult for a three-year-old to process because they’re confusing or scary and she doesn’t really understand what’s happening. And so a couple of weeks ago she started asking me, “Mama, tell me about the dead eel.”

She’s referencing a day a couple of weeks ago when my husband and I were celebrating our seven-year anniversary by going for a hike in Oregon Ridge Park with Audrey. At about 1 p.m. after our hike, I get this call from my colleague Barbara: “Alice, we got a call on the pollution reporting hotline – and there’s been a fish kill in the Jones Falls.” I say, “Okay, thanks Barbara.” It’s a Sunday, she doesn’t expect me to do anything about it at the time. I say, “Just call the national response center, they’ll dispatch everybody who needs to be there.”

I hang up, turn to my husband, and I say, “You wanna go on an adventure?” He’s married to a Waterkeeper. So he gets it. And we get in the car and we go. This is actually the first time that Audrey has been with me on an investigation, so it’s a new experience for her. We get down to the area of the fish kill. Barbara is there with her waders and water quality monitoring equipment because she’s amazing. We walk down through the woods; we walk into the stream, and I see dozens of dead fish in the little section that I can see. There are suckers, there are crayfish… and there’s the eel.

I walk over to this big, enormous silver American eel lying on the stream bed, dead. There’s nothing we can do at this point. These fish are dead or they’re dying, and there’s nothing we can do besides witness what is happening at the moment. I put on my gloves, I pick up this eel, and I turn to Barbara and say, “I need you to take a picture of me holding this eel.” It feels exploitative, and it feels wrong to be, in some way, in some social media currency, profiting off of this dead creature. But that is the way that you speak on behalf of rivers. That’s the way that you give a voice to the things in this world that don’t have a voice.

My daughter is standing there, and it’s the very first interaction she’s ever had with an eel, in real life, and it’s dead. It’s traumatic for her. I think that spouses and families of Waterkeepers must have their own nickname, or their own club, or their own support group or something because, bless his heart, my husband takes our daughter for three hours and just explores the woods while I put on a pair of waders with Barbara and we start walking upstream, because we’re going to find what killed that eel.

After a few hundred yards I smell this smell. It’s acid. I keep walking upstream, and I see a stormwater outfall in the banks just below a factory a few hundred yards up the way. We get closer to the outfall and an overpowering stench of acid hits me. I have to put my nose under my shirt. We take our water quality monitoring instrument, our YSI, and we stick it in the water right in front of this outfall. The PH is 3.8. Drinking water has a PH of 7. This is acid. I don’t know what kind of acid it is, but it’s acid. The concrete around this stormwater outfall has been completely eaten away.

We walk just past the factory and there are no dead fish above it… seems like the factory is our cause. We see a permitted discharge at the north end of the factory, but it smells like chlorine. We learn later from the MDE inspection report that the dechlorination system at this factory is offline. The system isn’t working because the tank with stuff that’s supposed to dechlorinate the water – it’s empty. It’s been like that for 51 days. So chlorinated water is discharging into the stream in addition to the acid coming out of the outfall. From the MDE inspection report we also learn that a pipe originating from underneath this factory is tied into the MS4 – the stormwater system – and that’s all we know for now. I find out later that this factory that we’ve been looking at is a vinegar factory.

This story might seem an odd choice for a Clean Water Act success story, because it actually doesn’t have an amazing win ending. This story doesn’t have a nice bow to wrap around it because it, like so many of our stories, is still under investigation. It’s still a pending matter. But what I can tell you is that when my daughter asks me, “Mama, tell me the story about the eel,” it has a different ending now. That story doesn’t end with Audrey seeing a dead eel for the first time. That story ends with me saying, “Somebody did something wrong, pollution went into the water, and the fish got very sick and they died. But Mama found out who did it. And Mama works very hard every day to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again. Because Mama is a Waterkeeper.”

Learn more about the fish kill here.

Read about the Baltimore resident who found and reported the fish kill.