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Major vinegar maker accused of polluting Baltimore’s Jones Falls waterway, killing 1,000 fish

State environmental regulators and Chesapeake Bay advocates both filed separate lawsuits against the largest producer of commercial vinegar this week over pollution of Baltimore City’s Jones Falls stream.

The company faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for violating state and federal environmental laws. Beyond that, environmental regulators want a judge to order an evaluation of the plant to determine what prompted the pollution and shut off the stormwater channels.

Fleischmann's Vinegar Company Inc. is accused of polluting the stream with water that’s more acidic than permitted which prompted roughly 1,000 fish to die starting in 2021, and endangering other wildlife for the past few years.

Local nonprofit environmental advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday. The same day, the Maryland Department of the Environment filed its own lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Baltimore.

The vinegar manufacturer faces $10,000 each day for its violations of the Clean Water Act from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Blue Water Baltimore’s lawsuit claims its members discovered dead fish and other creatures like eels, an extra pipe pumping out water with chemicals not allowed to be discharged and water not treated with enough chlorine leaking from the property into the stream below. There was a ‘strong odor’ of vinegar at the time. Water monitoring by advocates showed highly acidic water, acetic acid, copper, iron, lead, arsenic, phosphorus and other toxins from the cracks and fissures around the concrete wall and foundation of the plant. The extra discharge pipe had nitrogen, chloride, fluoride, nitrates and sulfates.

The nonprofit threatened to file a lawsuit in January over the spills in September 2021 and November 2022.

“Fleischmann’s must stop these unpermitted discharges immediately,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper for Blue Water Baltimore in a news release on Wednesday. “We are taking legal action today on behalf of our members so that we can protect and restore the Jones Falls stream.”

Jones Falls is a recreational area with both hiking and bicycling trails, including a popular waterfall lookout below Interstate 83. The plant is about 1,000 feet upstream from the Jones Falls trailhead.

“Blue Water Baltimore has since documented ongoing acid discharges flowing through cracks and fissures in the concrete walls of the facility, directly into the Jones Falls, a violation of federal and state laws,” according to the nonprofit.

The Cerritos, California-based company was founded in the 1920s after it began repurposing alcohol produced from its baker’s yeast to make vinegar. Its Baltimore City plant near West Cold Spring Lane and the Jones Falls Expressway manufactures white distilled vinegar, which is often used in food and cleaning products and transported out in 55 gallon drums or tanker trucks. In 2018, Fleishmann’s vinegar arm was acquired by Kerry Group, based in Ireland for $350 million from publicly traded Nebraska ethanol maker Green Plains.

Fleischmann's Vinegar Co. is allowed to discharge treated water into the stream that’s used to cool down the vinegar during the manufacturing process but it must be cleaned and pass safety requirements such as removal of chlorine. The company estimated in its state permit it would discharge about 295,000 gallons per day into Jones Falls stream, but state regulators found during an inspection the company discharged more than 643,300 gallons per day into the water.

But the company is not permitted to discharge acetic acid into the stream, which is what state regulators say the company did in August 2022, when 200 gallons were spilled into the water. Nor is the company allowed to spill 200 gallons of ethyl alcohol into the water, which it did in April 2022, state regulators say.

“We filed this action today in coordination with our partners to ensure that these alleged violations at Fleischmann’s Vinegar Company’s Baltimore facility are promptly investigated and remediated,” said Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown in a news release.

It was operating without a stormwater discharge permit for 392 days between January 2021 and January 2022. And the company’s dechlorination system wasn’t working for 51 days between July 2021 and September 2021.

The company declined an interview with WYPR on Thursday and instead referred to an earlier statement.

“Fleischmann’s Vinegar Company takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and has been working closely with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the City of Baltimore to ensure its site in Baltimore complies with the Clean Water Act,” said Janes Reeves, director of Communications North America Kerry in a recent email. “The company is committed to meeting all of its environmental compliance obligations and will continue to work closely with local authorities and the citizen group to reach a positive resolution.”

Kristen Mosbrucker is a digital news editor and producer for WYPR. @k_mosbrucker
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