It‘s an oyster farmer’s worst nightmare. More than two dozen people got sick in early November after eating raw oysters from a Southern Maryland creek that should have been closed to harvesting because sewage had leaked into it.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledged that the agency failed to act promptly after receiving a report that 25,600 gallons of diluted but untreated sewage had overflowed Oct. 28–30 into St. George Creek in St. Mary’s County.
More than two weeks later, the MDE issued an emergency order temporarily barring shellfish harvesting in the creek, a tributary of the St. Mary’s River.
In the meantime, Shore Thing Shellfish, a St. Mary’s oyster farm, had unwittingly harvested more than 7,000 oysters from its leased bottom in the creek, according to part-owner Brian Russell. Most of the shellfish, Russell said, went to a Virginia oyster farm that was supplying oysters for beer and wine festivals Nov. 6–7 in Northern Virginia. Records were kept showing that the oysters were kept refrigerated while stored and shipped to prevent the growth of harmful pathogens, he said.
In all, 27 people attending three different events in Loudoun and Fauquier counties reported getting sick after buying oysters provided by Nomini Bay Oyster Ranch, an oyster farm in Montross, according to George Kahn, Loudoun’s environmental health manager. The health department inspected the Virginia oyster farm and determined that the oysters had actually come from Maryland, Kahn said.
“You get periodic [food-borne illness] outbreaks,” Kahn said. “I don’t think we’ve had one of this scale in a long time.”
Paul Simpson, operations director of Nomini Bay Oyster Ranch, declined to comment.
The incident raises questions, environmental activists say, about the MDE’s diligence in ensuring seafood safety and curbing sewage spills and overflows.
“I don’t understand that. You have a sewer spill that’s reported to you, and you don’t close the fishery?” said Bob Lewis, executive director of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association. “Those people that harvested the oysters should have been notified.”
MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said that the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, the local water and sewer utility, had reported the sewage overflow promptly, as required by state regulations. MetCom, as it’s known, also posted a notice about the overflow on its public Facebook page on Oct. 28, warning that people should avoid contact with the water for the next 10 days.
“However,” Apperson said, “the information was not conveyed at that time within MDE to our shellfish program [staff] who would have then temporarily closed the nearby harvesting area.”
Food poisoning incidents like this hurt the entire seafood industry, said Michael Oesterling, executive director of Shellfish Growers of Virginia. It costs the businesses involved sales and customers, and it makes consumers question whether any oysters are safe to eat.
“I feel sorry for the gentleman,” Oesterling said of the Virginia oyster ranch, “because he did everything he was supposed to do. He was following the rules and regulations to the best of his ability, and then an outside influence he was unaware of caused the problem.”
Closure too late
Loudoun health officials began investigating “multiple reports of gastro-intestinal illness” on Nov. 10, a few days after the weekend festivals. Kevin Embrey, the Loudoun health district epidemiologist, said they were unable to confirm the cause of the illnesses. But the investigation found that oyster consumption was the only common thread among the sick individuals who attended the three separate events, he said.
Once Loudoun health officials determined the oysters came from Maryland, they notified the Maryland Department of Health, Kahn said.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health said the agency heard about “a potential outbreak” on Nov. 12, both from Virginia health officials and from the grower.
MDE spokesman Apperson said his agency got word the following day, a Saturday, and “immediately took steps to put an emergency closure in place effective that day.” It wasn’t until Nov. 16, though, that emails and text messages went out announcing that, retroactive to Nov. 13, shellfish harvesting from the creek was not allowed “until further notice.”
By that time, Russell said, the reports of illness from Virginia were already coming in. He said he’d also sold oysters to restaurants in St. Mary’s County and in Baltimore but was able to recall them before any could be consumed.
Russell said that someone from the MDE has since telephoned him to apologize for its lapse in notification. But he has yet to be told officially what happened and why.
“We’ve never had illnesses like this from our oysters,” he said.
Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said he believes there ought to be an investigation into what he considers an “all-around failure” by Maryland regulators.
“They dropped the ball,” Naujoks said, by not dealing sooner with MetCom’s sewage overflows and by not closing shellfish harvesting until more than two weeks later.
Apperson, the MDE spokesman, offered no explanation for the internal communication breakdown, but said, “To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this nature has happened. 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.”
Based on the information provided by the MDE, there have been 8 sewage overflows so far this year in St. Mary’s County, which has Maryland’s second-largest concentration of oyster farming leases. Seven have involved MetCom.
Until this month, there had been only one other sewage-related shellfishing closure in the county this year. On Jan. 2, 2021, the MDE announced an emergency closure of St. George Creek after MetCom reported it had fixed a ruptured sewer main on New Year’s Eve. It is estimated that 4,000 to 6,750 gallons of untreated sewage had spilled into the creek.
“The way they handled that one was the way it should have been handled,” Russell said. “They proactively closed the creek.” He had already sold about 600 oysters between the time of the sewage spill and the MDE notice of it, he said, but he was able to recall them before any had been consumed.
The MDE has collected an $8,500 penalty from MetCom to settle an enforcement action involving 11 sewage overflows between September 2011 and June 2015, Apperson said. The agency has yet to complete a review of more recent MetCom sewage overflows since 2015, he said.
George Erichsen, MetCom’s executive director, said the sewage overflow in late October was the unavoidable result of tidal flooding that inundated low-lying areas of St. Mary’s County with two to three feet of water. The water flooded into sewage lines, overwhelming pumps in the St. George Island area. MetCom contracted with private waste haulers who managed to collect 100,000 gallons from the overloaded system over three days, Erichsen said, but they couldn’t get it all.
“When you have a three-day surge like that or a hurricane event,” he said, “to be honest with you, we’re not going to be able to stay ahead of it.”
MetCom duly reported the overflow to MDE and the local health department, he said, in addition to posting about it on social media.
“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Erichsen said. “All anybody hears about is the overflow, not the effort that went into keeping it from happening or to reduce or minimize it.”
But Lewis of the St. Mary’s River watershed group said something needs to be done about the frequency of sewage releases.
“Every time we get a storm tide, we’ve got … sewage pump trucks down on St. George Island,” he said. “We’re in rescue mode, trying to keep it from spilling into the water.”
The MDE plans to consult with MetCom “to determine whether there are any improvements that can be put in place to address flooding at the pump station during weather events,” Apperson said.
“There’s something wrong here in the bigger picture,” Lewis concluded. “And that’s the sad part about this. We are going to blame the oysters, going to blame the farmer, and the real culprit here is MetCom, and of course the MDE [for failing to notify promptly].”
Lewis questioned why the state can’t alert oyster farmers and watermen immediately upon receiving notice of a sewage release.
Following this incident, the St. Mary’s County health department has decided to do that, even though it’s not responsible for regulating shellfish waters.
Heather Moritz, the county’s environmental health director, said that as a backstop the department plans to contact the MDE’s shellfish program staff itself whenever it receives notification from MetCom of a sewage release. The department also is compiling email addresses for St. Mary’s oyster harvesters so the county can notify them as well.
“This is not a required service, but I believe it is a service that our community would benefit from,” Moritz said.
The MDE lifted its closure of St. George Creek on Nov. 20 after sampling found it free of fecal bacteria. On Nov. 29, the state announced a new closure in the area because another MetCom sewage overflow had spilled an estimated 2,500 gallons into the Potomac River by St. George Island. The overflow began on Nov. 24 but was only reported by MetCom four days later, after it had halted the sewage loss, according to the MDE.
This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com on Tuesday, November 30, 2021.