By Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
WALDOBORO — Waldoboro Town Manager John Spear and Shellfish Committee member Glen Melvin are trying to find a solution to the pollution problem that periodically closes the Medomac River clam flats. Every time there is one inch of rainfall in a 24-hour period, the flats close for two weeks, and industry workers lose money.
Spear and Melvin composed a letter to the Maine Department of Agriculture detailing the problem and asking for help. In the letter, Spear said the Waldoboro Selectmen unanimously approved Melvin’s request for assistance in trying to improve the water quality in the Medomac River.
Spear also contacted Patricia Aho, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to ask for help. Spear said Aho responded to his letter, saying she was willing to work in partnership with other state agencies to help solve the problem. On July 31, one of Aho’s staff member’s spoke with Spear regarding setting up duscussions, including who should be invited, when and where the meeting will take place, and a possible agenda.
He wrote, “The Town of Waldoboro is requesting the DEP to utilize its expertise and resources to identify and abate specific pollution sources impacting the river, including sewage and drainage systems. This request is directed to you as it is my understanding that the DEP is the state authority with investigative oversight and enforcement authority under the Clean Water Act.”
The problem is simple; the solution, however, is not as easy to discern. Excessive rainfall leads to contaminated runoff from agricultural sources and storm drains. E. coli is dumped into the river, ingested by shellfish, and passed on to humans.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded organisms. Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some types can cause serious food poisoning in humans, leading to diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, kidney failure, and other serious illnesses, depending upon the type of E. coli.
The Waldoboro economy is largely dependent upon clamming, with 175 jobs related to the industry. According to Spear’s letter, “the fishery adds value of more than $1 million to the local economy [each year].”
Spear went on to say the constant closures have cost the town and its residents a great deal in lost revenues. He said if the fishery was open on a continuous basis, it could supply approximately $2 million per year in product value. With periodic closure, he said, revenue could be as little as $400,000.
Melvin, a shell-fisherman himself, wrote to State Agricultural Compliance Supervisor Matthew Randal, staying, “I would like to state how vital help from your department is to the Town of Waldoboro. Clamming is Waldoboro’s largest employer. We have 175 diggers. I have enclosed a landings report (created by the DMR). We average a million dollars a year in product value. This can easily double if we are not closed due to pollution. Every day we are closed, 175 families suffer. That’s a large proportion of a town with 5,000 residents.”
The clam flats have tested within normal range within four to eight days after heavy rains, according to Simmons, but regulations require a two-week closure. Unfortunately for shellfish fishermen, closures have cut up to 230 days from harvest time for Waldoboro clammers each year. Additionally, pollution from land-based sources has had an impact upon eels and lobster harvests.
According to Melvin, the importance of farms must be considered, but the effect on sea life has been extreme. It is his hope an equitable solution can be found.
In his letter to Randal, Melvin said, “I do realize how important our farms are to our community. As you know, in some cases, the water quality of the river is being compromised costing the town thousands. We hope, with your expertise, solutions can be found.”