Maryland officials have closed a section of the Potomac River to shellfish harvesting, after a second sewage spill in the area in recent weeks. Earlier this month, 34 people were sickened after eating oysters apparently contaminated by sewage
Maryland state officials did close the fishery for more than two weeks after a sewage spill.
The current closure affects 180 acres of Potomac waters in St. Mary’s County, adjacent to St. George Island. The second sewage spill was reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment on Sunday, and the closure was announced late Monday evening.
According to MDE, a sewer line break caused 2,500 gallons of sewage to spill into the Potomac, and 11,000 gallons were vacuumed up from roadside ditches before it could flow into the river. However, the sewer authority responsible for the spill disputes the assertion the sewage made it into the river. “It was a small sewer line break that we were able to to stop as soon as it was reported to us,” says George Erichsen, executive director of the the sewer authority, the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, known as MetCom.
The spill likely began on Nov. 24, Erichsen says, though MetCom was only alerted by a resident on Nov. 28. Erichsen says MetCom immediately notified MDE.
The earlier spill occurred Oct. 28-30. Roughly 25,600 gallons spilled from the sewage treatment facility, though Erichsen says it was “primarily tidal water mixed with a small amount of residential sewage.”
Days after the October spill, health officials on the other side of the Potomac, in Loudoun County, Va., started receiving reports of gastrointestinal illness from people who had dined at pop-up raw oyster bars by the company Nomini Bay Oyster Ranch, held at two Loudoun breweries and a winery in Fauquier County. Health officials traced the source of the oysters to an oyster farm in St. Mary’s River, a tributary of the Potomac, near where the sewage spill occurred.
MetCom put up “No Water Contact” signs in the affected area, and posted about the spill on Facebook. Erichsen says they also notified MDE on Oct. 28.
However, there was a breakdown in communication within the department, and no closure was implemented.
“The information was not conveyed at that time within MDE to our shellfish program who would have then temporarily closed the nearby harvesting area,” said MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson, in an email to DCist. “To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this nature has happened. We are now working on improving our coordination within programs, through retraining and building redundancies into our process as a safeguard to prevent this from happening in the future.”
The spills resulted from different causes: the October spill was caused by high tides that overwhelmed pumps in the sewer system, filling the system with river water and causing an overflow. The November spill resulted from a broken sewer pipe, which has since been repaired.