Freeport’s clammers are at a crossroads. The Harraseeket River clam flats — the most productive in town — are in jeopardy of being permanently closed to harvesting because of pollution concerns from marinas and the Free-port Sewer District plant, which discharges into the harbor. A final draft report issued by the Maine Department of Marine Resources in February recommended closing nearly a mile of the river permanently. Freeport’s dilemma could be a harbinger of things to come for Maine harbors coastwide, as increased recreational use and shoreline development adversely affect the safety of the shellfish resource.

In summertime, two marinas and the town wharf teem with recreational and commercial boats. Tourists wander in from the uptown shopping district to join hour-long lines at Harraseeket Lobster and Lunch; kayaking excursions from LL Bean and Ring’s canoe/kayak livery are launched from docks on both sides of the harbor, jostling passengers gathered on the wharf to await ferry service to Bustin’s Island. And yet, on a day with two good tides, Freeport clammers motor into the town dock in skiffs loaded with as much as four bushels of sweet softshell clams, twice a day. A lot of those clams come right out of the river not half a mile from the fryolators at the town landing.

The scene down at the wharf may indicate positive bustling commerce, but too much activity has forced Freeport to make difficult choices to accommodate the competing uses. “It’s a small harbor with a lot of stuff going on — the boats, the treatment plant, the clam industry. I wouldn’t want to have to choose,” says Amy Fitzpatrick, director of the shellfish sanitation program at the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). Fitzpatrick correctly emphasizes that decisions about managing the harbor are entirely Freeport’s own; as DMR’s shellfish sanitation director, it is only her responsibility to ensure that clams harvested there meet stringent public health standards.

Freeport’s treatment plant operates properly almost all the time. But all the time there is an area permanently closed to shellfish harvesting in the vicinity of the sewer outfall pipe. This is in accordance with standards set forth by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, administered by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to safeguard the health of the clam-eating public. For years the closed area extended a radius of about 1,000 feet from the plant’s outfall. But when a sewer main broke in Porter’s Landing in December 2002, DMR extended the closed area to approximately 2,300 feet. The following May 2003, DMR injected a red dye into the outfall stream over several days to test the circulation and dilution of effluent in the Harraseeket River. Boats equipped with flow monitors traversed the harbor up and downstream of the plant, constantly correlating their position with real-time readouts of dye concentrations.

That’s when things went downhill.

The goal of the dye study was to establish the location in the harbor at which effluent from the treatment plant reached a dilution of 1,000 to 1. This desired mix — a thousand gallons of harbor water for every gallon of treated effluent — would once and for all establish the permanent closed area.

Freeport waited. For over a year and a half, neither verdict nor report came from DMR’s study. In September 2004 DMR conducted another round of dye testing; still no results were released. Admonished this winter by the town council and local shellfish committee, DMR promised to report the results of the studies by Feb. 1. The final draft of the long-awaited report (issued Feb. 1) contained bad news for clammers. The permanent closure was recommended to extend 4,000 feet upriver and about 1,400 feet downriver from the outfall — over a mile of the river.

Challenging the Results

It was a blow to Freeport clammers and harbor interests, all of whom have been working to mitigate the cumulative impacts of Freeport’s “multi-use” harbor. Boats with through-hull toilets are relocated in the anchorage. Clam flats near the marina are closed in summertime to satisfy FDA concerns of potential overboard discharges. The harbormaster conducts an annual survey at mooring registration time to gauge the frequency of flushes and overnights spent on boats in the harbor. There’s even a sign floating on a raft at the harbor mouth declaring the Harraseeket a no-discharge zone, further reinforcing a much publicized no–discharge zone for all of Casco Bay.

“We do constant fecal testing in the Harraseeket River with good results,” says Freeport shellfish warden Dan Brown. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to make the water cleaner, and yet the closure keeps getting bigger. It’s a frustrating situation.” Brown acknowledges the need for caution when it comes to shellfish safety. “The last thing we want is for anyone to get sick. But we had a much smaller closure area before and never had any problem.”

Much of the hurt comes from the fact that the Harraseeket River is Freeport’s most productive area — “it’s our bread and butter,” says Brown. The river supports a density of clams that is among the highest in the state. Based on personal observation and what people have told him, Brown says the Harraseeket can withstand a lot of harvesting pressure and still rebound quickly.

“The Freeport town council is asking DMR to reconsider its closed area calculation. It asked former councilor Rod Regier to review the DMR dye study and analysis. Regier worked as an oceanographer in the mid-1970s with the Chesapeake Bay Institute of Johns Hopkins University. After reviewing the report, Regier questioned DMR’s use of a multiplier to decide the permanent closure area 4000 feet upstream and 1,400 feet downstream of the treatment plant. Regier says it was DMR’s “good faith attempt to be conservative to protect public safety.” But, he adds, “It’s not the right thing to do.”

Discharge rates from the plant at the time both dye studies were conducted were near 300,000 gallons per day. Dye concentrations that DMR observed in the river placed the 1,000:1 dilution point — and thus the closure area — at a radius of just 1,400 feet up and downstream of the treatment plant, and only against the harbor’s west shore. A closed area that size would leave much more prime clam flats open.

However, discharge amounts can swing upwards to 500,000 gallons or more per day. DMR used the multiplier to extrapolate the location of the magic 1000:1 dilution point at higher discharge rates. Regier argues that using a multiplier isn’t inaccurate; at higher discharge volumes, dilution would speed up because more mixing would take place. “I have difficulty with extrapolating — you don’t change your observed data without a really good reason,” says Regier.

Poring over treatment plant records, Regier also noticed spikes in plant discharges that correlate to both season and rainfall. “There is a long, seasonal minimum flow from late spring to fall when the plant discharges close to 300,000 gallons per day,” says Regier. “The dye study shows how treated effluent is diluted and circulated in the bay at those flows. The summertime [discharge] numbers are the right ones to be using, not DMR’s multiplier. They’ve made a misinterpretation in the analysis.”

The solution Freeport’s shellfish warden Dan Brown and Rod Regier both suggest is a smaller permanent closed area near the treatment plant than what DMR currently proposes. A conditional closure tied to a specified rainfall amount would provide added security without sacrificing the bulk of the richest, most productive clam flats in the region. Similar measures are already in effect: after a three-inch rain event, the state initiates a mandatory two-week closure of the clam flats to harvesting. Only after extensive water testing and actual clam meat testing is done are the flats reopened.

DMR’s Fitzpatrick says that the peer reviewers (two from the FDA and one from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Science) consider Regier’s comments “good questions to ask” and will be back for more discussion. “It’s a learning process, there’s give and take,” says Fitzpatrick. “We’re definitely hoping to get this resolved by spring. Freeport is definitely at the top of the list.”

Freeport, meanwhile, must juggle the multiple uses of its bountiful harbor. In some ways, having so many aspects to like about the harbor is an enviable situation. But the conflicts won’t go away, as boaters and clammers enjoy the harbor to its fullest. Then there is the treatment plant. It is over 30 years old, and things can start to break at that age. For the benefit of all harbor interests, the folks down there are focusing hard on maintenance and upgrades.