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More than 20 people sickened by sewage-tainted oysters after Maryland failed to warn public of contamination

When Chesapeake Bay oysters and other shellfish become contaminated with sewage or other pollution, Maryland environmental officials normally alert the public before any are harvested or eaten. But that didn’t happen after a recent sewage spill in Southern Maryland — and at least two dozen people became ill.

A surging tide that set records around the bay overwhelmed the sewage system along a narrow island in St. Mary’s County, causing about 25,000 gallons of waste to leak into a Potomac River tributary Oct. 28-30, according to the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission. The water and sewer utility reported it to the public, a Facebook post shows, and to the Maryland Department of the Environment, said George Erichsen, the commission’s executive director.

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But it wasn’t until two weeks later, on Nov. 13, that the state environmental agency raised any alarm about the contamination — and that was because of reports of illness from an event in Northern Virginia where oysters from the St. Mary’s River were served.

At that point, state environment officials immediately closed the affected portion of the river to shellfish harvesting, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said. But by then, oysters already had been sold and eaten, sickening more than 20 people, according to a health official in Loudon County, Virginia.

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Apperson said it isn’t clear how that managed to occur.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this nature has happened,” he said in an email. “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 contamination of waterways by sewage is common, particularly after heavy rain, and often can lead to beach closures and restrictions on fishing. It can be of particular concern for shellfish harvesting because oysters serve as natural pollution filters, meaning fecal bacteria can become concentrated within them, and because they are often eaten raw.

Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, called the lapse in public notification “inexcusable,” and particularly alarming given that it comes as the state has reported its lowest level of environmental enforcement activity in 20 years, raising concerns among activists that there is little incentive for polluters to clean up their act.

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“People are sick because MDE failed to do its job,” Naujoks said.

In this case, the St. Mary’s commission, known as Metcom, warned the public as soon as the overflow began Oct. 28 because of failing grinder pumps, a type of infrastructure that helps sewage flow. A post on Metcom’s Facebook page said waters near 16668 Piney Point Road on St. George Island should be avoided for 10 days, and said signs advising against any contact with the water were posted in that area.

Metcom officials also contacted St. Mary’s health officials and the state environment department, Erichsen said.

But that information was not passed along within the state agency to the office that would have been tasked with closing any nearby shellfish harvesting areas, Apperson said.

The department did not become aware of that lapse until officials from Virginia reached out during their investigation of an outbreak of foodborne illnesses, he said.

George Khan, environmental health manager at the Loudoun County Health Department, said the illnesses were linked to a winery where Maryland oysters were served. The same oysters also were sold elsewhere in the area, he said, though he referred questions about the oysters’ origins to Maryland officials.

Apperson confirmed that the oysters came from Shore Thing Shellfish, which grows oysters via aquaculture in St. George Creek, just north of where the sewage overflow was reported.

Brian Russell, one of Shore Thing’s owners, said the incident highlights concerns he has about failing sewer infrastructure around the Chesapeake, and added: “Obviously, we feel terrible that people were getting sick off of Maryland oysters.”

Russell said he has been working closely with state health officials, who assist the environment department on efforts to investigate shellfish contamination, since he heard about the outbreak of illnesses. Shore Thing properly handled and refrigerated about 10,000 oysters sold in the week or so after the sewage overflow occurred, he said.

The same area was subject to an emergency closure to shellfish harvesting in January because of a sewer main rupture. That spill was estimated to send up to 7,000 gallons of sewage into waterways. While last month’s overflow appeared to involve significantly more sewage, Erichsen said that the large volume in that earlier case was “primarily” made up of storm waters and that the sewage contamination was “extremely diluted.”

Three other sewage overflows have been reported in the area in recent years — in October 2019, July 2021 and August 2021 — but state environmental regulators deemed any impacts to be “negligible” and did not require shellfish harvest restrictions, Apperson said.

Metcom was charged an $8,500 penalty to settle a dozen sewage overflows from September 2011 through June 2015, Apperson said. The state has not completed a periodic review of any reported sewage overflows in Metcom’s system since then.

The state environment agency tested the waters and declared the St. Mary’s River safe for shellfish harvesting as of Nov. 19.

By that point, Russell said, any oysters that were in the water during the sewage spill would have flushed any bacteria they picked up.

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