An area near St. George Island on the Potomac river is closed to oyster harvesting. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program

Sewage Spill Again Closes Shellfish Harvest in Part of St. Mary’s

Just a couple of weeks after oysters from a Piney Point, Md. aquaculture operation sickened more than two dozen people due to a sewage spill at a nearby pumping station, another sewage overflow has forced an emergency shellfish harvest closure nearby.

The new order, issued Monday, applies to about 180 acres of the Potomac River, offshore from St. George Island, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (Metcom) reported that the overflow at 16995 Piney Point Road began Nov. 24 and was stopped Monday morning at 10:30. MDE inspected the site, finding an estimated 2,500 gallons entered the river over the weekend and an estimated 11,000 gallons were vacuumed from ditches that drain to the Potomac.

The emergency order halts the harvesting of oysters and other shellfish in the immediate future. There are no aquaculture operations in the affected area and no known commercial oysters were harvested during the weekend following the spill.

But that wasn’t that case after the last sewage overflow, which happened at 16668 Piney Point Road on Halloween weekend, when record flooding overwhelmed stormwater systems. Though Metcom notified MDE of the overflow, a communication failure within MDE meant that the shellfish harvest area wasn’t closed for weeks. During that time, oysters were harvested from a farm, sold, and served at an event in Loudoun County, Va. 27 people reported gastrointestinal illness.

Because oysters and other shellfish are filter feeders, polluted waters can concentrate disease-causing organisms within the oyster, making it dangerous to eat raw or partially cooked. MDE monitors bacteriological water quality and conducts pollution source surveys to determine which areas are safe for the harvesting of shellfish.

As Bay Bulletin reported, MDE is reviewing its process to make sure another breakdown in communication doesn’t happen, allowing people to get sick from Maryland oysters. Spokesman Jay Apperson told us the agency is working with Metcom. Apperson says, “To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this nature has happened.”

MDE plans to sample water in the area affected by the most recent spill beginning tomorrow and will remove the emergency closure when the science shows that oysters can be harvested and public health protected. Under regulations, the area could reopen for shellfish harvesting as soon as Monday, Dec. 20. The emergency order does not apply to fishing and crabbing.

The agency notes that this is the third emergency shellfish harvesting closure in 2021 due to sewage spills from the Metcom system in the St. George Island area. MDE says it will request a meeting with the Commission on the repeated system failures and plans to address the sewage spills.

-Meg Walburn Viviano