BALTIMORE (Nov. 29, 2021) – The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has issued an emergency order closing a portion of the Potomac River off St. Mary’s County to shellfish harvesting following a report of a sewage overflow.
The order, issued today, applies to about 180 acres of the Potomac River offshore from the St. George Island area of St. Mary’s County. It became effective immediately to prevent the harvesting of oysters and other shellfish in the immediate future.
The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission reported the spill to MDE today and MDE dispatched an inspector to the site. MDE issued the order after it was determined that sewage likely entered the Potomac River.
The Commission reported to MDE that an overflow at 16995 Piney Point Road began Nov. 24 and was stopped at 10:30 a.m. yesterday. The overflow entered ditches that drain to the Potomac River. MDE believes an estimated 2,500 gallons entered the river over the weekend and an estimated 11,000 gallons were vacuumed from ditches. There are no aquaculture leases in the emergency closure area. It was unknown whether any commercial harvesting occurred in the area in recent days, but regulations prohibit commercial harvesting on weekends.
Shellfish are filter feeders with the ability to filter water and get food from microscopic organisms in the water. If the waters are polluted, this filtering process can concentrate disease-causing organisms associated with raw sewage and other sources, such as animal waste. Oysters and clams are often eaten raw or partially cooked and must come from waters that are not polluted. MDE monitors bacteriological water quality and conducts pollution source surveys to determine which areas are safe for the harvesting of shellfish. Information on shellfish harvesting areas is available on MDE’s website.
MDE plans to sample water in the affected area 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.
MDE issued temporary emergency shellfish harvesting closures in January 2021 and November 13 (both in St. George Creek, the latter lifted November 20) due to sewage spills from the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission system in the St. George Island area. MDE will request a meeting with the Commission on the repeated system failures and plans to address the sewage spills.