Storm warning: Pollution is getting worse

By JOHN LEANING STAFF WRITER CAPE COD TIMES (06/17/98)

Shellfish Officer removes shellfish bed choking blue-green algae Enteromorpha at Allen Harbor.The algae is a symptom of nitrogen overload from upland sources including septic waste and lawn fertilizers. Tom Leach photo.
With 90 percent of Cape Cod's shellfish beds closed because of pollution, marine resource officials and others say Cape Codders should start paying attention to coastal resources threatened by waterborne pollution. "Things don't look good," said Falmouth Shellfish Constable Paul Montague. Montague said his own sampling of water near storm drains showed bacterial counts in excess of 2,000 colonies per 100 milliliters. The state standard for shellfishing water is 14 colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. He said the storm was an unusual event, but "It just goes to show how close the Cape is to losing everything. "This will become an ongoing problem." State marine fisheries officials Monday were forced to shut down most productive shellfishing areas around Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, all of Buzzards Bay and coastal waters out to three miles from Sandwich to the New Hampshire border because of the weekend's heavy rains. The deluge caused failed septic systems, overflowing sewers, and rivers surging with road and field runoff carrying pollutants to the coast. "The stuff we got back from Monday sampling from Chatham, Harwich, Falmouth, Duxbury - basically everything is above the standard for opening," Frank Germano, senior shellfish biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, said yesterday. "Most of the samples have greater than 50 colonies (of bacteria) per 100 milliliters of water," Germano said from his Bourne office. "They (most recent results) are right off the scales. The way things are looking now, I do not expect anything to reopen until Friday." However, there are some open areas around the Cape kept clean by strong tidal flushing action. The flats off Monomoy Island just south of Chatham is the most productive of those areas, but only permit holders for that area may fish there. Also open are the bay flats off Dennis, Eastham and Brewster, where permits are also required. They were not affected by the closure because of the huge tidal flush, but those areas are not as productive as many of the closed shellfish areas. Nantucket got less rain and remains open. Although Germano and others place much of the blame on sewer overflows from the greater Boston area, he and others also agree part of the problem is in our own back (or front) yards. "We have become very complacent over the years, and allowed major development over the years, with the idea that the solution to pollution is dilution. "But there has been so much development along the waterfront, it (wastewater) won't go away any more. "We've got to look at different forms in dealing with waste. Dumping it into a hole is not going to work." During shoreline inspections in older developments in Plymouth, Germano said, he has lifted the lids on cesspools and watched the water levels rise and fall with the tidal flow. Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, said septic systems and cesspools on the Cape are major culprits as well. "It's hard to assign percentage responsibilities. You can't put it all on sewers," she said. "Where there is a shallow water table, where there are failed systems or cesspools, they are major contributors to the problem, and that includes many places on the Cape," she said. The Cape Cod Commission has been charting nitrogen loading from septic systems and other sources in coastal waters, and officials warn more needs to be done to prevent pollution. "A lot of work needs to be done at home. Septic systems are feeding into shellfish areas. We are contributing nitrogen in excessive amounts near coastal waters of Cape Cod that is already resulting in the loss of shellfish areas," said Armando Carbonell, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission. "This is only an example of what could happen with a major hurricane," Germano warned. If the Cape was going to be hit by a strong hurricane, Germano said, a closure would be announced a day or so beforehand as a precaution. And that announcement would not just be for coastal areas, he said. "I'll say the waters and flats of the commonwealth are closed," he said. "With a hurricane, it's not just fecal bacteria. There will be wholesale destruction, with oil, gas, which are much more destructive and keep areas closed for a long time."
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