The Maryland Department of the Environment has issued an emergency order closing a waterway in St. Mary’s County to shellfish harvesting following a report of a sewage overflow, to remain in effect through Jan. 21.
The order, according to as press release issued last Saturday, applies to a portion of the St. George Creek area of the St. Mary’s River. It became effective immediately to temporarily prevent the harvesting of oysters and other shellfish, but does not apply to fishing or crabbing.
MDE coordinated with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of Health to determine whether oysters were harvested from the area in recent days. An aquaculture operation reported that it was working to track down for recall 600 oysters sold. A MDE spokesperson was able to confirm on Monday the 600 oysters have been tracked down, recovered and put back on lease property, and said no other oysters were harvested from the impacted area.
The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission reported the sewage overflow to MDE around 7 p.m. last Friday, Jan. 1. The initial report stated that the overflow, which occurred on St. George Island near the Route 249 bridge after a sewer main ruptured, was stopped at 6 p.m. on Dec. 31. It is not known when the overflow began, but the commission told MDE it believes, based on site conditions, that the overflow likely occurred for no more than three days. MDE’s preliminary investigation shows an overflow of three days would likely result in a discharge of between 4,000 and 6,750 gallons.
While shellfish are filter feeders with the ability to filter water and get food from microscopic organisms in the water, if the waters are polluted, this filtering process can concentrate disease-causing organisms associated with raw sewage and other sources, such as animal waste. Oysters and clams are often eaten raw or partially cooked and must come from waters that are not polluted.
MDE monitors bacteriological water quality and conducts pollution source surveys to determine which areas are safe for the harvesting of shellfish. Information on shellfish harvesting areas is available on their website.
Bob Lewis, executive director of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association, shared with Southern Maryland News this week the overflow is “very disheartening.” Although he said he understands there has been a lot of rain, which can cause such overflows, he said, “With better management it could have been avoided.”
“MetCom has a history of spills … they should be able to anticipate this and do a better job,” the director claimed.
With a number of sewer lines in the St. Mary’s watershed, it seems residents in the county are “taking the hit each time,” Lewis said, adding oyster recalls and the closing of waterways impacts family-owned businesses, which are the last thing they need while dealing with hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.