Farm runoff fouling clam fields Environment: A commercial clammer is losing his crop to pollutants not from a factory or power plant or other common source -- but to a corporate tomato farmer.


TOO BAD ABOUT R. G. Parks, commercial clam farmer in Gargathy Creek, on the seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore, about a 15-minute drive south of the Maryland line.

If the toxics that have been killing the little clams in his hatchery by the millions were coming from a power plant, an industrial facility or a city sewage plant, chances are good the Environmental Protection Agency would be riding to the rescue.

Even Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality, emasculated courtesy of Gov. George F. Allen, would be doing something, given that levels of toxic metals and chemicals in the creek nourishing Parks' clams far exceed state and federal water-quality standards.

But Parks' Kegotank Bay Clam Co. is up against a truly formidable polluter -- a farmer. Taylor & Fulton Inc., a Florida corporation, cultivates thousands of acres of tomatoes up and down the East Coast.

What has been ruining Parks' clams comes from no pipe or "point source" of discharge, which governments routinely monitor to regulate, fine and sue polluters.

Rather, the problem is runoff from agricultural land during rainstorms.

Known as "nonpoint-source" pollution, it also comes from lawns, golf courses, urban streets and septic tanks. Overall, it degrades water quality more than point-source discharges do.

And although I seldom miss a chance to single out Allen's unseemly tolerance for a dirtier environment, it's doubtful any of the surrounding states, or most of the nation for that matter, is doing much better in regulating nonpoint pollution.

Parks' hatchery has the potential to produce 25 million clams a year but last year could manage fewer than 2 million. Besides moving part of his operations to Chincoteague, he has been raising as much ruckus as he can to get something done.

He has enlisted scientists from Virginia Tech, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences to do what one would expect state and federal environmental agencies to do.

The scientists' water-quality studies have shown levels of copper in Gargathy Creek where it flows through Parks' clams at levels deadly to larval shellfish, and exceeding water-quality standards more than a hundredfold. They have found endosulfan, an insecticide lethal to aquatic life, at levels in the creek nearly 30 times water-quality standards.

They also found these two pollutants at even higher levels in rainwater gushing, along with huge quantities of sediment, from tomato farms upstream of Parks' clam farm.

You might expect some decisive action based on that and on complaints from Parks and other affected clam growers to the Virginia legislature and the governor.

What they have gotten, after two years of pressing their case, is appointment last year of an Eastern Shore Vegetable and Shellfish Grower Advisory Committee, which has mulled the clammers' problem for several meetings, and seems likely to mull it for several more.

It includes scientists and aquaculturists, but make no mistake, the committee is run by agriculture, chaired by J. Carlton Courter III, Virginia's commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. DEQ and EPA are notably absent.

Courter, at a meeting I attended, seemed to be making an honest attempt to carry out a task for which his department is ill-suited.

The commissioner's role used to be simpler. Nowadays, in places like Virginia's Eastern Shore, Courter is caught between two cultures -- agri and aqua -- both of which he is compelled to represent and advocate.

Land farming is still very much king here, with hundreds of thousands of acres in cotton, tomatoes, soybeans, corn, potatoes, melons and other vegetables. Throw in chickens, and you've got an industry in excess of $100 million a year, the farm people on the committee note proudly.

But aquaculture, particularly the raising of hard clams, is coming of age in the peninsulas seaside and the Chesapeake-side creeks and inlets and bays.

Clams command top dollar for the smallest sizes, so the shorter a time you fool with them, the more you make. An acre of "grow-out bottom" can hold a million clams that will wholesale for 18 cents apiece. "Only marijuana might get you more than that [$180,000] per acre," a clam grower said.

The industry here has an annual value of around $20 million, with potential to double or triple, experts say.

There are fundamental differences. Land agriculture, despite making many strides to protect the environment, still depends on profoundly manipulating the natural system -- clearing, plowing, ditching -- and on additions of chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides, or "crop protectants" as image-conscious tomato growers call them.

Lynn Gale, Eastern Shore manager of Taylor & Fulton, said it is not proved that runoff from the company's fields killed any clams and noted that 1996 was an usually wet year.

The "plasticulture" being used upstream of Parks' hatchery is getting more popular around the bay, and its potentially heavy impact on water quality needs study. Tomatoes and other crops are raised under acres of impervious sheeting, causing sharply accelerated runoff.

The water farmers, in contrast, strive to keep their "fields" as natural as possible, adding nothing. In fact, one boasted, "as they feed [on algae], our crop actually cleans the water." It is about as close to the ideal of environmental "sustainability" as moneymaking gets.

The two cultures probably can coexist and flourish; but it is going to take more policing of one's impact on the other than agriculture alone can manage.

Scientists say the problems clams are having are undoubtedly more complex and subtle in many cases than in Parks' case. Tomatoes are not the only source of nonpoint runoff.

The real issue is not simply clams vs. tomatoes. If life in the shellfish hatcheries is dying, what about all the unmonitored wildlife in those bays and creeks?

And how much longer can this country afford to treat pollution from the land as if it were somehow less harmful than pollution from a pipe?

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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