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Plymouth plant causes new problem for oyster growers

The wastewater  treatment plant in Plymouth, which has been in operation for over 20 years, is suddenly looming large in the minds of local shellfish growers.

The United States Food and Drug Administration is proposing to change the classification of shellfish beds in Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth Bays from approved to conditionally approved due to the outflow from the Plymouth plant into the bay. This would have an effect on both when local growers can harvest and where they can sell their product. 

The FDA has been pushing to reclassify shellfish growing areas near wastewater treatment plants, Ben Lloyd, owner of Pangea Shellfish Company and Standish Shore Oyster Farms, said. The outflow pipe releases treated, “cleaned,” he added, effluent into the bay. “It’s an immediate concern for growers.”  Duxbury Bay is “still a beautiful, clean, bay,” Lloyd said. The decision has more to do with changes at the FDA than with the water, he added.

Island Creek Oysters President Chris Sherman said that the representatives of the shellfish industry have asked the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to go to the FDA and ask for better data and justification for the proposal, rather than just issue an edict. The DMF “is pretty good at policing without having to reclassify,” Sherman said. He noted that Plymouth is already taking steps to improve the treatment plant. DMF, according to Lloyd, admits there isn’t enough data to warrant the re classification. “We’re trying to push DMF to hold off until we can get more data.”

Reportedly, Plymouth is considering  a plan to shift the wastewater  to 10 acres of rapid infiltration beds, rather than having it run into the bay.

If the reclassification is approved, what would change, Lloyd said, is that if there was an overflow of untreated effluent from the Plymouth sewage plant, part of the bay would be shut down to shellfishing for 21 days. “We’re OK with that. But we don’t think it warrants a reclassification. We don’t want the stigma of a conditional area.”

The proposed reclassification isn’t a done deal. The DMF has to agree to it. It has been a topic for several years, Duxbury Bay Management Commission Chairman Joe Messina said. The FDA has proposed the change before and the DMF has declined. It might happen this time due to a change of scientists at the DMF, he said. “They’re looking at the same water with the same water quality,” he said. He noted that there have been no incidents that would prompt a reclassification.   The shellfish industry has plans in place to respond to any problems coming out of the sewer plant, he added. Any reclassification, even if it doesn’t have an impact, could be misunderstood as meaning that a problem exists, Messina said.

“The Division of Marine Fisheries is working with stakeholders, the FDA and the Plymouth Wastewater Treatment Plant on a solution to protect public health and ensure compliance with national shellfish sanitation requirements while supporting the local shellfishing industry,” Katie Gronendyke, Communications Director for the  Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said in a statement.

It could also harm the chance of getting oysters from this area sold in Europe. The European Union and the United States have been negotiating to lift their bans on each other’s shellfish, but one stipulation from the EU is that they’ll only import shellfish from approved areas, Lloyd said. “The FDA comes up with a new initiative every year,” Lloyd said. “There is a back and forth with the state. It’s come to a crossroads.”

The proposed change is the result of a die test done in 2018, Duxbury Conservation Agent Joe Grady said. The test, which was done over four days, showed that discharge from the outfall pipe, “ends up all over the bay.” The outflow from the sewage treatment plant has a more direct effect on Kingston and Plymouth Bays, Sherman said. After the die study was done, the bay was dredged, which changes flow patterns, Lloyd said.

If the Commonwealth rejects the FDA proposal, the FDA could take local shellfish off the interstate transportation list of growers authorized to transport their product, Messina explained. “But that’s never happened.” The level of concern varies among shellfish growers, Messina said.  “They understand the back and forth.”  

State Senator Patrick O’Connor, who represents Duxbury, said he’s been in frequent communication with other officials about the matter, including Congressman Steven Lynch. “It’s tough to deal with these federal decisions. “ He added that “I don’t think the FDA is looking at it like the state, or locally, they’re looking at numbers, we’re looking at much more than that.” 

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