N.J. Sewage Spill May Affect Shellfishing
HIGHLANDS, N.J. (AP) _ It was shaping up as a good day for Robert Tomaszewski. His small boat was laden with baskets of clams bound for the dock, and they looked robust and healthy.
But it was one of the few good days he and other clammers have had this year after being idled for about six weeks due to a spill that flooded the Raritan River with more than a half-billion gallons of raw sewage.
While the leak has been repaired and watermen have been allowed back out onto the Raritan and Sandy Hook bays, all parties concerned are anxiously waiting to determine the long-term effects of the spill.
Because of water pollution, clams harvested from the Raritan Bay must spend 48 hours at a purification plant before they can be sold, a requirement that was in place before the sewage spill. Water in the tanks at the J.T. White Clam Depuration Plant is bombarded with ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, and the clams have two days to filter themselves.
``Right now, it doesn’t seem too bad,″ said the plant’s general manager, Kevin Kirk. ``But you don’t know what type of algae blooms you might see because of it. You don’t know what settled to the bottom and survived.″
The sewage leak’s dissolved solid waste below the waterline could cause serious problems, said Andrew Willner, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper organization.
If algae blooms appear when the water starts warming up, it could have a serious effect on shellfish, he said. Algae consume a tremendous amount of oxygen, and could cause temporary dead zones in parts of the bay by taking away oxygen need for marine life to survive.
``The bay is very resilient, and it takes a lot to knock it back. This knocked it back,″ Willner said.
The sewage spill occurred March 2 when a pipe ruptured at a Sayreville sewage treatment plant. It forced state environmental officials to close more than 6,000 acres of shellfish beds in Sandy Hook Bay and two nearby rivers after finding higher-than-acceptable levels of fecal coliform, which can cause illnesses including diarrhea and hepatitis A in humans.
The shellfish beds weren’t fully reopened until May 1, state Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell said.
``We’re still evaluating the long-term impact and what penalties should be assessed in this case,″ Campbell said.
He said the main focus now is compensating shellfisherman. The authority has offered cash payments to 42 clammers who met a deadline to submit claims. The clammers said they lost more than $300,000 from the shutdown.
``We had no money coming in; we couldn’t pay any bills,″ said Tomaszewski as his small gray boat idled near the dock of the depuration plant. ``It takes a toll. You work all summer to save up enough to get you through the winter, and just when you come back to start again, you can’t work.″
Raritan Bay clams account for almost half the clams harvested in New York, according to New York Sea Grant, part of a nationwide network of university-based programs that works with coastal communities. The New York-New Jersey coast is one of the nation’s largest suppliers of clams, which are a $13 million industry for New York and contribute $20 million to $40 million to New Jersey’s economy each year.
The sewage spill doesn’t appear to have affected fledgling oyster colonies that have been reintroduced into the Raritan Bay. Michael Stringer, who runs the oyster gardening project, examined some of the shellfish on Tuesday and said they looked good. About 80 percent of the oysters planted last summer are still alive, a rate he termed excellent.
``They’re growing very well in that area,″ he said. ``It’s a very positive sign so far.″