PHIPPSBURG, Maine — In the two years since the Department of Marine Resources implemented a new system to detect pollution in the Kennebec River, shellfish harvesters in Phippsburg say the flats have been closed more often than not.
Added to the acidification of flats in the New Meadows River, digging clams has become a tenuous livelihood, leaving some harvesters “hanging on by a thread,” said Dean Doyle, chairman of the Phippsburg Shellfish Conservation Commission.
But new DMR staff on board since summer 2011 — including Brunswick native Kohl Kanwit as the new director of the department’s Public Health Division — have aimed their laser at reopening flats up and down the coast. As a result, diggers have returned to more than 1,000 acres of mud, many of them in the midcoast region.
Tonight, Kanwit will meet with shellfish committees from Phippsburg and Georgetown to iron out details of a new interim management plan for the lower Kennebec’s many shellfish beds, with an eye toward getting harvesters in this area back to work, too.
In 2009, working under what Kanwit said she understands was pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Marine Resources introduced a new system to measure water quality in the lower Kennebec.
The river, which is joined by the Androscoggin and other smaller rivers in Merrymeeting Bay just upriver from Bath, drains approximately one-fifth of the state’s land mass, according to Kanwit, with all of that water flowing past eight wastewater treatment plants before reaching the Georgetown and Phippsburg flats.
Scientists measured water quality at different flow levels, and found “dirtier” scores when more water washed down the river, Kanwit said.
So they set what Kanwit described as “a pretty conservative” threshold, and since then, downstream flats are closed when more than 30,000 cubic feet of water per second (CFS) runs through the Kennebec.
But that number isn’t hard and fast, as in Georgetown’s Sagadahoc Bay and Heal Eddy, which are flushed directly by the Atlantic Ocean, according to Georgetown Shellfish Warden Jon Hentz.
Seasons bring other variables, as in the case of snowmelt in the spring, in the form of clean water.
DMR staff has struggled for years to keep up with measuring water quality along the entire coast. The department often implemented broad closures to ensure public health.
Kanwit said the flow meter gauge is approved by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, but Doyle said Monday that the flawed system pushed both Phippsburg and Georgetown harvesters to the edge of ruin.
“I’ve got guys saying they’re looking at losing everything if we’re shut down one more time,” he said. “I walked away from the house two years ago after the 2009 year. Yeah, I did. Then the flow meter [system] went into effect — and we lost the whole summer due to [statewide flood closures] — and there was no way I could get caught up. I just couldn’t. They start taking away two weeks, two weeks, two weeks — imagine if you didn’t get two paychecks a month. I’ve got a wife and a son … it’s not just affecting 40 guys.”
Harvesters aren’t confident that the previous DMR staff fully considered the implications of the flow system on their livelihoods, according to Doyle.
“It was an easy fix, or so they thought,” he said. “[They] told us it wouldn’t be that bad and that it was our only option, and it’s way, way worse.”
Doyle said the clammers are further frustrated when flats are closed even though the water is clean.
With mandatory 14-day closures, “I’d sample, say, five days in and the water would be clean, but we’d still have to wait nine more days to open,” he said.
In August, the DMR’s shellfish growing team announced it would focus on specific growing areas in an effort to reopen flats along the entire coastline.
The department requested lists of priority shellfish areas from towns and undertook what Kanwit told The Times Record in August was “a really focused, intensive effort” to work with towns to reopen those areas.
That month, nearly 100 acres in the lower Harraseeket River in Freeport were upgraded, and bountiful flats in Brunswick’s Woodward Cove soon followed.
Between Sept. 26 and Oct. 18, flats in Harpswell, Wiscasset, Woolwich and Maquoit Bay in Brunswick also were upgraded to allow at least conditional digging.
By Nov. 9, 20 growing areas from the Harraseeket River in Freeport to Mount Desert Island had been reopened — at least to conditional status — according to a DMR newsletter.
But addressing the complex Kennebec River management system presents unique issues, Kanwit said.
Among them is the turnover in staff at DMR, which left Kanwit and scientist Alison Sirois to figure out much of the flow meter process from reports. They’ve also discovered that annual reviews of different growing areas may not have been completed in past years.
In the longer term, Kanwit plans to look into the “nonchlorination at many upriver wastewater treatment plants between October and May. But the DMR has no authority over that,” Kanwit said.
“One of our next steps is to work with the DEP to investigate why,” she said, “and to actually get language into the wastewater permits that speaks to water quality regarding shellfish. Other states do it that way and we don’t.”
Carlisle McLean, Gov. Paul LePage’s senior natural resources policy adviser, said Monday that LePage is committed to reopening flats and cleaning up the environment, and she acknowledged that doing so will “require some work with [the Department of Environmental Protection] and overboard discharge licenses, as well as waste treatment facilities. But we are looking at it very closely and trying to understand what it is we can do to get some of these flats open.”
More immediately, Kanwit hopes to walk out of tonight’s meeting in Phippsburg with “the bones of an interim management plan” that will ideally be implemented by the end of January.
Doyle said harvesters who attended a December meeting on the proposed interim plan “were really stressed out,” but he wondered whether that was due in part to flat closures at the time.
Of the proposed interim plan, he said, “If they stick to their word, it’s going to be an improvement.”
Kanwit hopes to re-establish some trust with the harvesters.
Her staff has turned “a laser focus … on the Kennebec,” she said. “There are some water quality issues in the river … but we’re also trying to alleviate some of the pressure for these harvesters so that when the clams are clean, they’re digging them … I think they just have to trust that we’ll keep working to [that end]. I don’t think there’s a lot of trust there now.”
Tonight’s meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Totman Library, 28 Parker Head Road.
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