Cleanup needed on Pocomoke Pfiesteria search: Obvious pollution problems demand tougher government action.

September 12, 1997

THE PECULIAR conditions of the lower Pocomoke River that seemed to explain its susceptibility to an elusive fish-eating microorganism may not be so peculiar after all.

Biologists began yesterday to monitor several other Chesapeake Bay tributaries for signs of Pfiesteria piscicida, after closing a second waterway (in Somerset County) to recreation and fishing because of potential health problems tied to the organism's suspected role in fish morbidity there.

While scientists and state officials insist that there is no widespread problem in the bay, they are finally extending their search for the cause of fish sores, human ailments and fish kills in waters outside the lower Pocomoke.

Much has yet to be learned about Pfiesteria, and its numerous life stages, to understand why the tiny dinoflagellate has turned virulent in Chesapeake waters. The sluggish flow and narrow, swampy mouth of the lower Pocomoke no longer seem the main factors.

Experts believe that human pollution is a principal trigger of Pfiesteria toxins. This despite a major decade-long effort to restrict the flow of these pollutants (principally phosphorus and nitrogen) into the bay system.

The complaints of diseased fish and sickened watermen on the Pocomoke have focused attention on serious shortfalls of government regulation and scientific monitoring.

Pocomoke City's sewage treatment plant is still not equipped to remove nitrogen and phosphorus. Government has not required it there -- or in three other small municipal plants on the lower Eastern Shore -- despite a long campaign elsewhere to upgrade Chesapeake Bay wastewater treatment plants. Leaking raw sewage pipes to the Pocomoke City plant have been discovered, too.

Levels of phosphorus in the Pocomoke River have long been the highest in the state, with little effort to restrict them.

Intensive chicken farming leads to unwanted mountains of manure, much of it left to run off into streams and rivers as pollution. There's too much to be absorbed as fertilizer by crops; the porous land is unable to effectively filter it before the chemicals reach ground waters.

Manure-control permits, required for large cattle and hog farms, don't apply to most chicken operations; the threshold of 250,000 birds is too high.

There is plenty to be done, including state inspection of septic systems in the watershed. While biological studies continue, Maryland authorities need to take stronger, obvious steps to clean up the Pocomoke River and other Eastern Shore tributaries.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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