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For the second time in a few weeks, Maryland officials close oyster harvesting in St. Mary’s for sewage overflow

For the second time in less than a month, state environmental regulators shut down shellfish harvesting near St. George Island in St. Mary’s County after a sewage spill.

The Maryland Department of the Environment announced Monday evening that it closed 180 acres of the Potomac River after a sewage overflow over the Thanksgiving weekend.

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The repeated problems are raising fresh questions about sewer infrastructure in the Chesapeake. Oysters contaminated during an October spill in nearby St. George Creek sickened at least two dozen people in Virginia.

About 180 acres of the Potomac River near St. George Island in St. Mary’s County is closed to shellfish harvesting after a sewage overflow — the second such shutdown in the area in less than a month.
About 180 acres of the Potomac River near St. George Island in St. Mary’s County is closed to shellfish harvesting after a sewage overflow — the second such shutdown in the area in less than a month. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, also know as Metcom, got a report from a resident about the overflow on Sunday, and believe it could have begun as early as Wednesday due to a sewer force main break, said George Erichsen, Metcom’s executive director. Metcom notified MDE about the incident that same day, Erichsen said.

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MDE received word Monday that the spill might have reached the Potomac, said department spokesman Jay Apperson, and dispatched an inspector to the site.

That inspector determined that the overflow entered ditches that drain into the Potomac, and estimated that about 2,500 gallons of sewage went into the river. Roughly 11,000 gallons of sewage was vacuumed from the ditches, according to MDE.

Erichsen said Metcom’s operations department found that the 2,500 gallons did not reach the river, but MDE inspectors said the ditches were tidally influenced and drained into the river. Because inspectors believe the sewage water flowed directly into a shellfish harvesting area, rather than simply near one, they decided to issue the shutdown, Apperson said.

It’s not known whether any commercial harvesting took place in the affected area, although no harvesting is allowed over the weekend. There are no aquaculture farms in the closed area, according to MDE.

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The shutdown does not impact crabbing or fishing. Contamination events are particularly concerning when it comes to oysters because they filter the water and can accumulate bacteria in their tissue. Plus, they are often eaten raw.

The department started sampling water in the impacted area Tuesday to determine when its oysters may be safe for consumption. The area could reopen as soon as Dec. 20.

Recently, the state agency came under fire for initially failing to shut down shellfish harvesting after an Oct. 28 sewage overflow dumped 25,000 gallons of diluted waste into nearby St. George Creek on the other side of the narrow island.

Metcom notified MDE about the spill, but word didn’t reach the office handling shellfish closures, officials said.

After Virginia health officials raised the alarm that 20 people had been sickened after eating oysters from an aquaculture farm on the creek, Maryland officials closed it to harvesting for about one week, starting Nov. 13.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this nature has happened,” MDE spokesman Jay Apperson 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.”

Harvesting was also closed in the area in January due to a sewer main rupture.

The October overflow occurred after a tidal surge inundated grinder pumps at a station at 16668 Piney Point Road, roughly a mile away from the most recent spill, Erichsen said. A contractor hauled hundreds of thousands of gallons away from the site but wasn’t able to keep up with the flow, meaning some escaped into the creek, Erichsen said.

MDE officials plan to meet with the commission to discuss the repeated system failures and plans to address the spills, according to the department’s statement Monday.

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