A Baltimore City pipe filled with chlorinated water – left to flow for 72 hours into a Leakin Park stream – has caused a major fish kill.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) confirmed to The Brew that it has found about 2,000 dead fish in a tributary of the Gwynns Falls.
They include white suckers, stonerollers, blacknose dace, longnose dace, creek chub, crayfish and – by far the most endangered species – American eel.
Canvassing the stream yesterday, The Brew saw mature eels, some 30 inches long, floating in Dead Run about a mile downstream from the pipe, located under the Ingleside Avenue bridge near Security Boulevard and Forest Park Avenue.
MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the fish kill was caused by elevated levels of chlorination entering the stream from the broken pipe.
No Response from DPW
Baltimore’s Department of Public Works has not confirmed the fish kill nor issued any public notification of the water break.
The agency yesterday sidestepped questions about the number of fish killed and the length of time it took before addressing the problem.
Instead, spokesman Jeffrey Raymond issued this statement: “It is my understanding that, after a report of a main break, the main was shut off Monday, and we are finalizing the process of abandoning the line because it is no longer necessary.”
The water main break was discovered last Saturday by George Farrant, vice president of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park (FOGFLP), a volunteer conservation group.
Three Days of Delays
Farrant told The Brew that he made repeated attempts on Saturday, Sunday and Monday to get Baltimore City, which owns the line, and Baltimore County, where the pipe was located, to shut the water off.
“My 311 calls to the city were worthless,” Farrant said, and it wasn’t until Monday evening that the flow of chlorinated water was turned off.
He recounted his experience after he was informed by a FOGFLP member on Saturday morning that Dead Run was running several inches above its normal level.
“By then, I knew the water had killed the fish.” – George Farrant.
“I traced back the source of the flow to the Ingleside bridge, where I saw grayish-looking water, smelling of chlorine, gushing into the creek.
“I called 311. They told me the location was in Baltimore County, and I needed to contact Baltimore County. A county sewer guy did come out and meet me on Saturday. But he said this wasn’t a sewer problem, and they needed to get a water guy.
“So I met the water guy the next day [Sunday]. The water guy said he didn’t have authorization to turn off the valve because he was a county guy and not from the city. By then, I knew the water had killed the fish. There was a bad, rotten smell along Franklintown Road and in Winans Meadow.”
On Monday, Farrant again tried to get the county and city to take action.
“By 3 p.m., there were people at the bridge, but the water was still running. I came back around 8 p.m. and a Spiniello crew there. They had turned off the valve, and only a small amount of water was going into the stream.”
Chlorinated water is considered a pollutant by MDE. The agency told The Brew yesterday that it had found that “Baltimore City DPW, as owner of the water distribution system, to be in non-compliance based on our sampling results showing elevated levels of chlorine in the stream.”
What, exactly, non-compliance will mean to the city is unclear.
DPW sidesteps questions about the fish kill and the length of time it took to address the problem.
Last year MDE cited the city for dumping as much as four times the legal limit of chlorinated water from the Druid Lake reservoir into the Jones Falls. (The city was discharging the water in order to start construction of underground tanks to comply with federal clean water regulations.)
Those discharges did not result in fines. Apperson said yesterday that MDE’s Water and Science Administration will continue to monitor the impact of the pipe break on aquatic life in Dead Run.
The Far-flung Life of an Eel
The most visible sign of that impact were the floating bodies of American eel along Dead Run.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed the eel on its endangered list, with a very high risk of extinction, due to loss of freshwater habitat and the overfishing in Maine and the Carolinas.
A smooth, snakelike fish with a brownish-yellow body, the American eel spends most of its life in fresh and brackish waters. It can reach up to five feet in length, but is rarely seen because it is a nocturnal creature that buries itself in silt and mud during the day.
The eels found dead this week in Leakin Park began life about 1,500 miles away in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas.
The specie spawns there in the winter, producing tiny larvae that drift for months in the the ocean before they are carried to the U.S. coast by the Gulf Stream.
As the larvae transform into two-to-three-inch “glass eels” with transparent bodies, they swim toward rivers and bays – including the Chesapeake Bay – and, over time, become pigmented.
As they turn into adults, the eel head further inland in search of fresh water, deploying their unique ability to “crawl” through wet grass and mud to get around obstacles, including small dams.
Known to live for as many as 20 years before returning to spawn and die in the Sargasso Sea, they do have an Achilles heel: stream pollution.
Eels are vulnerable to even small doses of chemicals, and last weekend levels of chlorination considered harmless to humans proved fatal to those that had flourished in a forest stream in Leakin Park.