MACHIAS, Maine — A rainstorm and a power failure at the local wastewater treatment plant have shut down shellfish harvesting in the Machias River, according to officials.
An overflow of sewage into the Machias River happened Wednesday, June 12, when heavy rains fell across much of Maine.
Both officials with the town and with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees sewage treatment plant operations in the state, said Monday that intake pumps at the Kilton Lane plant failed when the power went out around 5 a.m. that morning. Generators at the plant automatically turned on when the plant lost power, but for some reason the pumps did not switch to generator power, they said.
Shellfish are filter feeders and so, when overflows occur, can absorb harmful bacteria that can cause illnesses such as hepatitis A and cholera in people who consume them.
Machias is one of more than 30 communities in Maine that, due to antiquated sewer systems, are permitted by DEP to discharge a combination of wastewater and storm runoff, known as combined sewer overflows. These communities are required by DEP to take steps to eliminate or abate their overflows.
According to Clarissa Traskow of DEP, sewage backed up into the treatment plant building for about six hours before it spread through a connecting pipe to a siphon chamber on the south side of the river and then overflowed into the river. She said that after power was restored, pumps were able to stop the overflow by late that afternoon.
Chris Loughlin, Machias’ town manager, said Monday that initial reports suggest 50,000 gallons of untreated sewage may have run into the nearby tidal Machias River, which drains into Machias Bay. He said the town has made upgrades in recent years which have helped reduce the amount of overflows from 4 million gallons in 2009 to fewer than 1 million in 2012.
“We’ve been working on this issue for 20 years,” Loughlin said.
He said there have been other overflow incidents in Machias in recent weeks as a result of blocked pipes. One was caused by a rock and another by discarded blankets.
He said that with the recent upgrades at Kilton Lane, the siphon chamber is now considered the weak link in the system. He said he would like to be able to build an overflow chamber on the south side of the river to help the amount of overflows.
The same day as the latest overflow, the state Department of Marine Resources ordered several closures in the area to prevent the harvest and consumption of polluted shellfish. The closures apply to the Machias River, East Machias River and the northwest corner of Machias Bay, affecting tidal mudflats in Machias, East Machias and Machiasport. The notice does not say how long the areas will be closed. DEP tests closed sites for lingering pollution before it decides when to reopen them.
Loughlin said he understands the frustration of clam diggers in the area who cannot ply their trade because the flats have been shut down. Typically, he said, overflows result in clam flat closures that last two weeks.
“Their income stream is gone,” he said. “If they can’t dig, they lose money.”
Hollis Stevens, a member of the municipal shellfish committee in East Machias, said Monday that clam flats in East Machias have been closed to harvesting for eight years because of repeated overflows from the Machias wastewater treatment plant. He said the only reason East Machias still has such a committee is to preserve its local shellfish harvesting ordinance, in the event that the local clam flats are ever reopened.
Stevens said that after graduating high school he supported himself by either digging for clams or by working forestry-related jobs in the woods. Since the mid-2000s, however, clamming has not been an option. He can’t harvest clams in East Machias and neighboring towns issue nonresident licenses on a limited, lottery basis that are very difficult to win, he said.
“With the clamming gone, it really has cut into my income source,” Stevens said. “I’ve lost several thousand dollars income because of it.”
Jeremy Wood, a clammer from Machiasport, said Monday that about 800 acres of local clam flats have been closed for weeks now because of the sewage overflows in Machias. He said diggers are being offered $1.70 per pound for clams now, twice what they could get a few months ago, but local diggers are missing out. He estimated that he’s missing out on several thousand dollars worth of income over several weeks by having Sanborn Cove and Randall Point Flats closed to shellfish harvesting.
“We’ve lost June,” he said. “This is extremely frustrating. There’s a lot of money sitting in those flats and this is the time of year we need to get it.”
According to DEP staff, 50,000 gallons is not a lot compared to other sewer overflow events in Maine in recent years. Calais, for example, had more than 18 million total gallons of sewage overflow into the St. Croix River during 2012 while Bangor had 70 million gallons that overflowed into the Penobscot River over that same year.
Traskow said the department’s noncompliance committee is expected to meet in mid-July, after a final incident report has been issued, to determine what kind of action it may take over the June 12 overflow incident. She declined to comment on what kind of action DEP might pursue, but did say that one option is to pursue a consent agreement with the town and that fines are included in most DEP consent agreements.