Clamming closed up Sewage spills temporarily halt farm’s harvest

Toby Van Buren works on a new screen in his garage that will be used to protect his clams from crabs and stingrays.

Because of two large sewage spills last month, Toby Van Buren could not harvest clams on Thursday in tidal waters behind the Isle of Palms.

Instead, he spent time in his garage tending and mending equipment used to farm the mollusks.

Things have been like that for him since Aug. 28, when Mount Pleasant Waterworks leaked an estimated 500,000 gallons of sewage that drained into ponds at the Seaside Farms subdivision on Rifle Range Road.

To make matters worse, three days later, about 470,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater overflowed at the Sullivan’s Island treatment plant.

“I’ve never had anything like this happen before. It’s a little disconcerting,” Van Buren said.

Heavy rains were cited by officials as factors in the spills.

Van Buren said the condition of aging pipes is a problem too. A section of pipe pulled from the ground after the Rifle Range Road spill had gaping holes in it. “We’re building roads and bridges and all this stuff. We need to think about what’s under the ground too,” he said.

After the first spill, Van Buren’s clam farm near Breach Inlet was automatically shut down for 21 days as required by law.

Now, he is waiting for officials to test the water and the clams to tell him if he can go back to work selling his product.

State health department staff will return on Sept. 26 to gather samples for testing.

“It usually takes a few days for the results to be returned,” said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Meanwhile, Van Buren said he has been losing $1,000 per week because of the situation. For now, he is keeping his local restaurant customers happy with clams he buys in McClellanville. Van Buren raises about 400,000 clams on 8 acres of tidal waters leased from the state. He harvests 250,000 clams annually with the help of his son Mark Van Buren. The family business began in 1979.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks has been monitoring bacteria levels in the marsh behind Seaside Farms on the Intracoastal Waterway. On Wednesday, the utility issued a statement saying that environmental harm from the spill was minimized and contained. “Test results indicate that the water quality has returned to pre-event conditions.”

DHEC tested ocean water at Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island beaches near the spill and found no reason to issue a swimming advisory, said Beasley.

The ban on harvesting shellfish in the affected area behind the islands does not apply to fish and shrimp, he said.

In addition to clams, the Van Burens raise oysters. The oyster season likely will begin Oct. 1, depending on the results of water tests.

Overall, the closure affects thousands of tideland acres where mollusks are harvested behind the islands, including public oyster grounds, Beasley said.

The Rifle Range Road spill occurred when a 100-foot section of 25-year-old pipe carrying wastewater sprang a leak, resulting in a small geyser of sewage in the road. Large holes could be seen in a section of the 20-inch metal pipe as it was being removed.

A report filed with state health officials said the pipe failure was caused by a combination of corrosion and increased pumping pressure due to heavy rains.

Sullivan’s Island water and sewer manager Gregg Gress said the island wastewater spill on Aug. 31 involved treated sewage. Torrential rains overwhelmed the system, which is designed for brief peak flows of 2.5 times its permitted capacity of 570,000 gallons per day, he said.

Gress said old pipes allow unwanted stormwater into the system.

“It’s a national problem,” he said.

Van Buren met Thursday with Gress to discuss the issue.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks commissioners will discuss the Rifle Range Road spill at a meeting Monday. Waterworks has more than 100 miles of the sort of “force main” pipe that failed Aug. 28. Replacing all of it is cost-prohibitive, officials have said.

Meanwhile, Van Buren will be awaiting word for when he can get back to work.

“We’re losing a lot of money but there’s nothing we can do,” he said.