WASHINGTON – John Hansen says there’s an easy explanation for why he can no longer sell his shellfish: There’s just too much feces in the waters of Puget Sound.
When nearly 40 people were sickened in March after eating raw oysters, the Washington state Department of Health traced the outbreak to shellfish beds along a 3-mile stretch of Hammersley Inlet. It includes Hansen’s farm, South Sound Mariculture, one of 31 companies that had to shut down. State officials blamed the illnesses on norovirus, a stomach illness linked to fecal coliform pollution.
“I’m losing $10,000 a month,” said Hansen, 51, of Shelton, Washington. “I’d say the average farm is losing somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 a month – and that’s not a stretch when they’re shut down.”
Shellfish farming is big business in Washington, which ranks first in the nation in production and where 3,200 jobs are tied to the Puget Sound. And from Washington state to Washington, D.C., shellfish farmers and their allies want the government to clean up the nation’s second-largest estuary and keep their operations running.
While Hansen wants local officials to do a better job of treating the water, the shellfish industry and its allies are taking their case to Congress, hoping to convince members to kill President Donald Trump’s plan to cut cleanup funding next year for the nation’s major bodies of water, including Puget Sound, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.
Congress’ 2018 budget remains very much in doubt, but Puget Sound advocates won a reprieve last week when lawmakers struck a deal on a $1 trillion spending bill that will keep the government running through September. The bill, which passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday, includes $28 million to continue cleaning up the Sound.
“That was actually a bright spot for us,” said Jessie Israel, the Puget Sound conservation director at the Nature Conservancy in Seattle. “We took a nice kind of temporary deep breath. We were pretty worried about what would happen.”
The discovery of the norovirus at Hammersley Inlet resulted in a recall of shellfish last month. State officials said the virus could have gotten into the water as a result of failing septic systems, malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants, boat discharges or directly from an infected person.
The virus spreads easily, with its symptoms including watery diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting that usually pass in two days. The Washington state Department of Health said that ordering and eating cooked shellfish is the best way to prevent the illness from spreading.
“This issue underscores the importance of protecting our marine water, especially in areas where shellfish are grown,” Rick Porso, director of the Washington state Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said in a statement.
In recent years, state and federal officials who monitor pollutants have been keeping a close eye on everything from urban stormwater runoff to septic tanks to farm operations, including dairy, poultry and livestock operations. In 2015, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined a dairy operator in Lynden, Washington, after federal officials observed water polluted with animal waste getting dumped into a ditch that emptied into an area near shellfish beds.
The Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that tracks the issue, said in its annual report card last year that about 37,000 acres of the Sound’s shellfish beds – or roughly 16 percent of the total – had been closed due to pollution sources.
Appearing before the Shelton City Commission at a recent meeting, Hansen put the blame for the pollution at Hammersley Inlet squarely on fecal coliform, saying it could be coming from the city’s treatment plant.
“That’s why we’ve got norovirus,” he said in an interview.
After the meeting, city officials put out a statement defending their plant, saying it exceeds state standards and that it had passed an on-site inspection conducted by the state last month.
With 80 percent of Washington’s tourism and recreational dollars tied to Puget Sound, advocates are out to raise the profile of the Sound and to persuade Congress to focus on environmental cleanup issues. On Capitol Hill last week, the Puget Sound Partnership organized a group of more than 60 advocates to meet with lawmakers, including Washington state Democratic Reps. Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer, who teamed up to create the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus in 2013.
Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director, said the aim was to “reverse the degradation of Puget Sound” and to come to Capitol Hill with “one loud voice.” The group she led included representatives of the shellfish industry, agriculture, business, Indian tribes, nonprofit organizations and state and local governments.
Israel, who attended the event, said this year’s event became more urgent after Trump proposed getting rid of cleanup funding for next year.
“The president’s proposed budget was a shock,” she said.
Margaret Pilaro Barrette, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association in Olympia, called the Puget Sound cleanup “a national model of innovation” and said the stakes are high for the 2018 federal budget.
“All of the effort that we’ve made up to this point could slide backwards and that’s really troublesome,” she said. “We rely on clean water and healthy habitat.”
Barrette called the closing at Hammersley Inlet “a big hit” for shellfish farmers and said the industry is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to do more studies on the norovirus.
“The issue is that norovirus is everywhere and it’s extremely contagious,” she said. “Shellfish are part of the victims here. This is important. We all collectively need to know more about this.”
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